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Vanity Fair: “The Suffering Is Real”: As Pelosi Holds Firm, Some Democrats Are Getting Desperate on COVID Relief

Washington, October 15, 2020
VANITY FAIR, ABIGAIL TRACY

Like a child of divorced parents who are no longer on speaking terms, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer has been playing conduit between two factions of Democrats: one that’s willing to strike a deal with the White House on a COVID-19 relief bill, and one that is not. On Tuesday night Blitzer asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to respond to a tweet from Congressman Ro Khanna—one of the most vocal members of the former group—calling for a compromise on Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s latest $1.8 trillion proposal. “I don’t know why you’re always an apologist, and many of your colleagues apologists, for the Republican position,” Pelosi shot back. “Ro Khanna, that’s nice. That isn’t what we’re going to do.” 

Speaking with Blitzer the next day, Khanna held firm. “This is a time where we need to do a lot more, and it pains me that we’re not being able to deliver...And that’s why I am going to come out and say that we need to get something done with as much power as I have,” he said, praising the Speaker for the progress she’s made in negotiations. “I acknowledge that I’m not a committee chair. I acknowledge that I don’t have as much power in the institution. But you know what? I’m an equal member of Congress. I represent a constituency.” Khanna is not alone in his view; other Democrats, too, are growing restless. Khanna told me he has personally heard from upwards of 15 of his Democratic colleagues who support his position on striking a compromise, and he thinks the sentiment is even more widespread.

Since Donald Trump signaled renewed interest in striking an agreement on Friday, just days after he called off talks, there is a view among some House Democrats that if there’s a deal to be had—a big if, certainly—they should take it. “If Trump made a specific, concrete, verifiable offer—not one of his on-again, off-again tweets—that put real money to state and local governments, extended unemployment, provided money to help our schools, and extended the payroll protection plan, among other things, I’d encourage us to do it,” Vermont congressman Peter Welch told me Wednesday, stressing the caucus’s confidence in Pelosi. “The reason I would is this: The need is urgent. The suffering is real.”

The White House’s $1.8 trillion offer is the most substantive to date since the CARES Act passed in March. Though it’s dwarfed by the $2.2 trillion and $3.1 trillion packages that passed the House earlier this year, both of which were dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate, Mnuchin’s latest pitch is nearly double the administration’s starting point. But it still lacks a number of provisions Pelosi insists are imperative, such as funding for a national testing apparatus. “This is a difference between us and them. We have to find common ground; we want to do it in a unifying way. But common ground is not saying, ‘Oh, it’s whatever you want. We’ll just do it because, you know, we’re getting tired of it,’” Pelosi said on a caucus call earlier this week, according to a source on the call. “Again, we really need to have an agreement, but we cannot have an agreement by just folding. I don’t think our leverage has ever been greater than it is now.”

Referencing the multimillion-dollar gap between the two sides in negotiations, Pelosi told her caucus, “Are you giving haircuts, or are you just chopping off heads?”

While Khanna is something of a newcomer to this tug-of-war, other House Democrats have been calling for a compromise throughout. Last month the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus—comprised of 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans—introduced a $1.5 trillion plan. But it was promptly rejected. “I have been very, very clear on my assessment that we need a deal, that we have needed to put forward legislation that actually had a chance of becoming relief and not just a discussion about relief,” Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus who voted against Democrats’ earlier packages, dismissing them as unrealistic, told me. Of a potential deal with the president’s backing, Spanberger said, “I want to come to Washington tomorrow and vote for it so that we can deliver the aid that our constituents so desperately need at this time.”

People are undeniably hurting. According to a new study from Columbia University, 8 million in the U.S. have dipped below the poverty line as federal relief from the $2 trillion CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, has dried up. Among Democrats pushing for compromise, the view is there’s no time for perfection. “I don’t know what we’re arguing about because those are all of the things that we as Democrats say that we want. And, you know, there’s always more to want. There’s always something else,” Spanberger said. “Every day just adds to the days that we should have done this.”

With the November election just weeks out, the window for a deal with the White House might be fleeting. As Politico’s Jake Sherman has reported,if Trump loses the election, the likelihood that he’ll play ball on a proposal as a lame-duck president is slim. Welch posited that Democrats should take what they can get and, in the event of a Joe Biden victory, amend their work later. “If those elections go as I hope they will, we’ll have another bite at the apple in January. So whatever we don’t get through negotiation, we’re in a position to get through legislation. But the sooner we get the aid to people, the sooner the suffering that a lot of folks are experiencing will be alleviated,” he told me. “The question is: Do we take that or wait for the whole enchilada? I would say, take it and then legislate in January.”

Of course Mitch McConnell and the Republican-controlled Senate present a huge obstacle to any agreement—even a Trump-approved one. That faction has balked at the price tags thrown out by both Pelosi and the White House in the stimulus negotiations. McConnell has been singularly focused on the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Khanna acknowledged this dynamic, but argued that at least it would be clear where the onus lay if the Senate majority leader let any White House–Democratic deal die on the vine. “Put the ball in McConnell’s court,” he told Blitzer. “Right now everyone says a pox on all their houses, Congress is dysfunctional, we can’t get anything done. If we create a vote in the House, if we cut a deal with the White House, then force McConnell, and people will know who should have the responsibility.”

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