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Pelosi stays firm on coronavirus relief as a few Democrats urge compromise

Khanna is first progressive to urge Pelosi to cut a deal below Democrats' $2.2 trillion plan

Khanna, D-Calif., is the first progressive Democrat to urge Pelosi to compromise on a pandemic relief deal with the administration.
Khanna, D-Calif., is the first progressive Democrat to urge Pelosi to compromise on a pandemic relief deal with the administration. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to keep her caucus together as she holds out for a better coronavirus relief package than the Trump administration’s latest $1.8 trillion proposal, but some Democrats are growing impatient as the window to enact a law before the Nov. 3 election closes.

“We’re in a place that we should be able to cut a deal,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., told CQ Roll Call in an interview.

Khanna said Democrats should be able to accept most of what’s in the $1.8 trillion offer Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made to Pelosi on Friday because it provides at least some relief in all the key areas they have been pushing. The offer includes $300 billion for state and local governments, $400 per week in federal unemployment benefits into January, $60 billion for rental and mortgage assistance, $28 billion in student loan relief and $15 billion in food assistance.

“We have a moral obligation to do something,” Khanna, a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said. “We are the party that stands for the working poor.”

Pelosi, however, is still unhappy with the administration’s offer on state and local aid and unemployment assistance, as well as other aspects of the $1.8 trillion proposal. She’s been pushing provisions from Democrats’ $2.2 trillion bill the House passed Oct. 1.

“This proposal amounted to one step forward, two steps back,” the California Democrat said in a “Dear Colleague” letter Saturday. “When the President talks about wanting a bigger relief package, his proposal appears to mean that he wants more money at his discretion to grant or withhold, rather than agreeing on language prescribing how we honor our workers, crush the virus and put money in the pockets of workers.”

In a follow-up letter on Sunday, Pelosi said the administration finally provided language to counter Democrats’ proposal for a national plan for COVID-19 testing, tracing, treatment and vaccine distribution, but she dismissed it as “grossly inadequate.”

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Although Mnuchin had over a week ago agreed to Pelosi’s demand for $75 billion to spend on those needs, Pelosi said the proposal he sent to Democrats on Saturday “seems to be about $45 billion in new money” that “is not spent strategically.”

“It delays funding to states unless they enter into compacts that require legislative action by each participating state,” she said. “Mandatory compacts are a recipe for delay when the country must move forward with a national plan as soon as possible.” 

The administration’s proposal doesn’t provide money for U.S. territories, includes “very minimal support for tribes,” and does “nothing to address inequities in COVID incidence and impact on communities of color,” Pelosi added.

“Until these serious issues are resolved, we remain at an impasse,” she said. “However, I remain hopeful that the White House will join us to work toward a relief package that addresses the health and economic crisis facing America’s families and will do so soon.”

‘We can get the $30 billion’

Khanna agrees with Pelosi on the need for the $75 billion and language enforcing a national testing and tracing plan, but he thinks the issue is resolvable.

“I think we can get the $30 billion and we should signal if the administration meets us at $75 billion … and they have a national testing plan, then we have a deal,” he said.

Khanna first shared his interest in Mnuchin’s offer in a tweet Sunday, calling the $1.8 trillion “significant” and noting it is more than twice the amount of the 2009 stimulus package passed in former President Barack Obama’s first term.

He concluded the tweet with a message for Pelosi: “Make a deal & put the ball in McConnell court.”

Khanna is the first progressive Democrat to make a public break from the speaker’s negotiating position. So far, mostly moderate Democrats have publicly pushed Pelosi to strike a deal and many of them haven’t gone as far as Khanna.

“Quite a few members feel this way,” Khanna said, adding that he’s talked with at least 10 other progressives who share his view. “Now I don’t know how many of them will be vocal, but members are hearing in their districts that people are suffering.”

The speaker moved quickly Sunday after Khanna’s tweet to tamp down any appearance Democrats aren’t unified. Committee leaders put out statements criticizing the administration’s offer, and Pelosi’s office has been resending them to reporters.  

“Set against the ongoing health crisis and the economic carnage wrought by the coronavirus, the Trump administration’s latest offer is woefully inadequate,” Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey said. “It ignores science-based solutions to crush the virus and shortchanges state and local governments that provide most services Americans depend on.”

Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J.; Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass.,; Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif.;’ Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. Scott, D-Va.; Small Business Chairman Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y.; and House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., put out similar statements.

Several concerns

The committee leaders echoed concerns Pelosi raised in her “Dear Colleague” letters over the weekend.

Pelosi complained that Republicans’ latest proposal for state and local funding — $300 billion, up from $250 billion in Mnuchin’s prior, $1.6 trillion offer — “remains sadly inadequate” and that they haven’t budged on their “totally inadequate” $25 billion offer for child care. Democrats want $436 billion for state and local aid and $57 billion for child care.

The two sides remain divided on renewing a federal enhanced unemployment insurance benefit that expired in July, with Democrats wanting to stick to the previous level of $600 per week and Republicans proposing $400 per week.

Pelosi noted the administration continues to resist Democrats’ demand for enhanced worker safety regulations while insisting on liability protections for businesses.

The administration has also rejected Democrats’ proposal to expand the earned income and child care tax credits, instead offering to double the amount of direct payments families would get for each child from $500 to $1,000.

No action this week

In a sign that a deal isn’t expected soon, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer announced Monday that the House would not be voting this week. The Maryland Democrat advised members that they may still be called back this month if a deal comes together.

That leaves just three weeks before the election for Pelosi and Mnuchin to reach an agreement on another aid package that has alluded them for months, for both chambers to pass it and the president to sign it.

If a deal doesn’t come together in the next few weeks, it’s unlikely another aid package will get done before the current 116th Congress ends in early January. Although some lawmakers believe something could get done in the lame-duck session along with a government funding package, the more likely scenario is that additional coronavirus aid gets pushed off until the 117th Congress.

Democrats believe they can get a better deal in January or February if former Vice President Joe Biden, their party’s presidential nominee, beats President Donald Trump, but most don’t want to wait that long.

Part of Khanna’s argument for getting a deal now is that doing so leaves Biden free to pursue infrastructure or some other policy priority as his first big bill rather than coronavirus relief.

“He’ll get one major initiative right off the bat,” Khanna said, noting if an aid package doesn’t get done now Biden would be forced to tackle that first.

If other progressives back up Khanna in his push for a deal, it’s more likely to occur privately than publicly. House Democrats are holding their weekly caucus call Tuesday at noon, when Pelosi is likely to provide an update on negotiations and members will have an opportunity to ask questions or air their views. 

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