House Democrats are plowing ahead with a Friday vote on a $3 trillion-plus coronavirus relief measure, arguing the urgency to act outweighs concerns among rank-and-file lawmakers that the “bold” package described by party leaders isn’t bold enough.
Several top priorities pushed by large blocs within the Democratic Caucus were left out of the bill.
Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders upset by some of the omissions pushed for a delay in the vote to next week so lawmakers could discuss potential changes. But leadership decided to proceed on schedule, indicating confidence that they have the votes to pass the huge package.
“There are things that members of the Progressive Caucus have pushed for and achieved in terms of substantial victories on behalf of the American people in this bill, but some things that they may not have achieved,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries said on a Wednesday webinar hosted by BakerHostetler, a law firm.
“Same for the Blue Dogs. Same for the New Dems,” the New York Democrat added, referring to more moderate factions within the caucus. “But the highest common denominator I think has been accomplished,” Jeffries said. “And I think, ultimately, we’re going to be able to get this bill over the finish line on Friday.”
Indeed, some Democrats who worked for months to get certain priorities in the bill still plan to vote for it, despite their proposals not making the cut.
“I definitely support it,” Virginia Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr. said in an interview.
The vice chairman of the Joint Economic Committee and other members of the New Democrat Coalition had been leading an effort to include automatic stabilizers, a mechanism to tie relief programs to timing or economic triggers so they can keep running without Congress having to continue to renew them.
The New Democrats had proposed several aspects of a previous package where stabilizers would be useful, like the so-called Paycheck Protection Program to provide forgivable loans for small businesses, direct payments to households and increased federal Medicaid reimbursement rates.
Beyer’s proposal focused on enhanced unemployment benefits. It would have extended the availability of the extra $600 a week in unemployment insurance until 30 days after the national emergency declaration for the pandemic ends and provided additional unemployment benefits that vary by state based on their unemployment rates.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi had publicly endorsed the concept of using automatic stabilizers last week but ultimately decided not to include them in the bill because of the cost. Beyer said Pelosi communicated to the caucus that the way the Congressional Budget Office scored stabilizers would have added “an enormous price tag” to the bill.
“It just became really difficult for her to go to the public and say, ‘Here’s a bill for $4 or $5 trillion,’” he said, noting he respects her decision not to move forward with the proposal.
Pelosi confirmed at her weekly press conference Thursday that CBO scoring was why she didn’t include stabilizers in the bill. “We were disappointed,” the California Democrat said.
Overall, Beyer said he’s pleased with the bill and plans to support it.
“Politics is the art of the possible, and I think right now this is the best we can get in this world,” he said.
Some progressives undecided
Most if not all Republicans are expected to oppose the measure, so Democrats cannot afford to lose more than a dozen or so votes, depending on attendance.
Some progressive Democrats have not decided how to vote as they contemplate whether to overlook the bill’s omissions in favor of the provisions that were included, including nearly $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments.
“At the end of the day, can we go back [to our constituents] and say that we are protecting paychecks, that we are the party of keeping workers in their jobs, that we are making sure that everyone is covered with health care and that we are providing businesses with relief so that we can stay open?” Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal said on MSNBC on Wednesday.
Jayapal, co-chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, had been pushing for her paycheck guarantee proposal that would provide businesses with grants to cover three months of payroll costs so they could continue to pay their employees, as well as other expenses like rent. Pelosi had said on several occasions that the idea was worthy of consideration, but ultimately leadership did not include it in the bill.
Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, the other Progressive Caucus co-chair, had a complementary proposal, to expand workshare programs under which employers can pay workers for reduced work hours and state unemployment insurance systems can pay workers benefits for the lost hours, that was also left out of the bill.
Another priority that progressives unsuccessfully pushed was expanding Medicare and Medicaid to provide health coverage for people who are unemployed or lost their health insurance during the pandemic. Instead, Democrats’ bill would subsidize 100 percent of COBRA premiums for nine months for workers who were laid off and lost their employer-sponsored health insurance.
“The decision to extend Cobra benefits instead of providing the unemployed with Medicare or even ACA subsidies is economic nonsense,” California Rep. Ro Khanna said in a tweet. “Cobra won’t cover those who work for businesses that go under. Cobra is 25% more expensive than Gold plans on the [2010 health care law exchanges] and much more than Medicare.”
Khanna reiterated that concern on a call with reporters Thursday, saying he and other progressives were still undecided because of “difficult choices” between many aspects of the bill they support and others they feel fall short.
“There are parts of it that are problematic,” he said.
Khanna said he supported delaying the vote to give members the opportunity to make the case for changes, especially since the Senate is in no rush to take up another bill. “It’s important that we get this right,” he said.
Another area of the bill that falls short of what many members requested is on direct payments. The measure provides for one more round of $1,200 payments to adults earning up to $75,000 while offering $1,200 per child instead of $500 in a previous package but capping the total per family at $6,000. Democratic members had floated a variety of direct payment proposals, most of them calling for several rounds of payments versus one-off assistance.
Rep. Tim Ryan, who had a proposal with Khanna to provide monthly payments of $2,000 for adults earning less than $130,000, said he is “disappointed” that the bill only provides for a second round of direct payments.
“I just think that a long-term payment over months would provide an enormous amount of, obviously, economic relief, but also the kind of mental stability that these families are going to need,” the Ohio Democrat told reporters Wednesday.
Still, Ryan said he plans to support the bill.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed, but I’m pleased with so much of this, and you don’t always get everything you want,” he said. “And we knew that it was going to run into a real buzz saw in the Senate. But anyway, we’re not done yet.”
Kate Ackley contributed to this report.