WASHINGTON POST, ERICA WERNER and JEFF STEIN
House Democrats passed a $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill Thursday over intense GOP opposition, even as bipartisan talks between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin continued.
The legislation, which passed 214 to 207, has no chance of advancing in the Republican-led Senate and is opposed by the White House. But it’s been nearly five months since the House passed the $3.4 trillion Heroes Act, which also went nowhere in the Senate. So with the House set to recess Friday through the election, Pelosi (D-Calif.) acceded to demands from moderate Democrats who wanted to take new action to address the toll of the coronavirus pandemic before heading home to campaign for reelection.
“This is not just a money debate and a language debate. It’s a values debate. It’s important for people to know that what this fight is about,” Pelosi said on the House floor ahead of the vote. “The people have needs, and we have to meet them.”
Republicans railed against Pelosi for advancing a bill that has no chance of becoming law, accusing her of playing politics instead of trying to strike a bipartisan deal. And even though it was largely pressure from moderate Democrats, some in tough reelection races, that persuaded Pelosi to reverse course and put the bill on the floor, 18 mostly centrist Democrats voted “no” on the legislation Thursday, with some expressing frustration that they were voting on a bill that was headed nowhere instead of an actual deal.
“Today’s package is another partisan exercise that will never become law — just as the Heroes Act never received a single vote in the Senate, let alone reached the President’s desk,” freshman Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) said in a statement. “The American people are exhausted by empty promises and government dysfunction.”
But even as the highly partisan debate was underway on the House floor, behind the scenes Pelosi was, in fact, working to try to strike a bipartisan deal with Mnuchin. The two spent the day trading phone calls and offers, and although Pelosi said they remained far apart on some issues, the negotiations were continuing and appeared to be getting into some granular details, such as specific language on a coronavirus testing plan, and whether and at what level Republicans could agree to a refundable child tax credit sought by Democrats.
“We’re going back and forth with our paper and conversations,” Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol late Thursday. Asked about the odds of reaching a deal, she replied: “I don’t know, it just depends. We’ll see.”
Pelosi and Mnuchin renewed their bipartisan talks only this week, after negotiations collapsed in early August. Congress has passed no coronavirus relief legislation into law since four bills in the spring totaling some $3 trillion, and chances of getting a new deal before the election have been looking exceedingly low.
But the fact that Pelosi and Mnuchin are now trading offers in earnest appears to suggest there’s some hope of success. Even if they do manage to clinch a deal, however, the White House would still have to sell it to Senate Republicans, who have been highly skeptical of any legislation over $1 trillion.
Mnuchin went into the talks with Pelosi with a $1.62 trillion offer, the White House confirmed Thursday — a sum the speaker still views as too low. But there are a number of areas of overlap between the legislation the House passed Thursday and Mnuchin’s offer, including small-business assistance and a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks. The two sides both support enhanced unemployment aid, though Pelosi’s bill has $600 a week compared to Mnuchin’s proposal at $400.
The two sides are also circling agreement on some $75 billion for coronavirus testing and tracing, while working on specific language on how it would work. Pelosi is still holding out for more state and local aid than Mnuchin has agreed to.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sounded skeptical about a new deal, but in an interview on Fox News Channel late Thursday he said he would evaluate any agreement the House speaker and treasury secretary come up with.
“If they can reach an agreement I will take a look at it and see whether I can sell that to Senate Republicans,” McConnell said.
The legislation the House passed Thursday is a slimmed-down version of the $3.4 trillion Heroes Act from May, including many of the same provisions, but with time frames shortened to reduce costs. In addition to money for stimulus checks, small businesses, unemployment insurance, and coronavirus testing and treatment, it also has aid for election security and the Postal Service, and assistance to airlines that are up against a deadline to furlough workers, among many other provisions.
The closed-door negotiations between Pelosi and Mnuchin stood in contrast to public finger-pointing by both sides Thursday that appeared almost to forecast defeat and preemptively assign blame.
At the White House, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany confirmed that the administration had offered Pelosi an approximately $1.6 trillion package — much higher than many congressional Republicans would be able to support — but said Pelosi was “not interested.”
“Nancy Pelosi is not being serious. If she becomes serious, then we can have a discussion,” McEnany said.
For her part, Pelosi criticized the GOP’s proposals as too stingy, contending that the administration is focused on protecting tax breaks for the wealthy instead of help for families and children in need.
“This isn’t half a loaf; this is the heel of the loaf,” Pelosi said on Bloomberg TV of the White House proposal.
Even as Pelosi was criticizing the White House plan for not going far enough, some Republicans were suggesting it went too far.
Rep. Kevin Brady (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, expressed concern on Fox Business about numerous provisions under consideration, including the amount of unemployment aid and aid for state and local governments. Brady said some help is necessary for the airline and restaurant industries but it is not clear at what cost.
“The worry is: ‘How much wasteful spending will we have to swallow to do this?’” Brady said. “I do think we need some targeted help. The question is: Is the 500 or 700 billion dollars that’s really needed — is the other $1 trillion on top of it so wasteful that we can’t do that? We don’t know that yet.”
In the opinion of some Republicans the unprecedented $3 trillion stimulus Congress agreed to in March and April was more than enough and there’s no need to do more.
But Mnuchin, along with other leading policymakers, including Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell, have consistently argued that more stimulus is needed amid signs that the recovery is slowing. Much of the stimulus approved in the spring has expired, unemployment remains high, and layoffs are on the rise.
The number of people claiming unemployment rose slightly, to 26.5 million, and Americans’ income dropped in August along with the expiration of emergency federal aid programs. Disney announced 28,000 layoffs earlier this week, and major airline companies have indicated tens of thousands of layoffs are possible in coming days without additional federal help. American Airlines has announced it will move forward with furloughing 19,000 workers, citing inaction in Congress.