Pelosi preps new coronavirus relief plan amid stalled talks

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer held several weeks of negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows from late July to early August, but the talks failed amid partisan finger-pointing. The two sides were hundreds of billions of dollars apart on overall spending levels, with aid to state and local governments — a top Democratic priority — a huge stumbling block.

“We want to get a deal or an agreement with Mnuchin and the Senate because we want a bill passed and signed,” Hoyer told reporters Thursday when asked about a potential vote. “A message bill is one thing. But we want to get something signed so people get money.”

Pelosi and Mnuchin have held several phone calls since then, and they hashed out a deal this week on a short-term spending package to keep the federal government open until Dec. 11, but there has been no movement on a Covid-19 relief bill.

“I’ve probably spoken to Speaker Pelosi 15 or 20 times in the last few days on the CR and we agreed to continue to have discussions on the CARES Act,” Mnuchin said at a Senate Banking Committee hearing Thursday.

But, he added, “right now we’re stuck” because Democrats want at least a $2.2 trillion plan.

The legislation is expected to contain popular provisions from the massive $3.4 trillion HEROES Act the House passed in May, including state and local funding and expanded unemployment benefits but likely for a shorter time frame than originally proposed, according to Democrats involved.

With key assistance like federal jobless aid and business grants having expired, many House Democrats have grown desperate in their calls for Pelosi and her leadership team to take up additional relief bills before the chamber leaves for a month-long recess next week.

That includes some of the caucus’ most endangered Democrats who are anxious about the election in just 40 days, as well as others from districts that have been battered by the economic fallout from the pandemic. About a dozen Democrats had even considered joining a long-shot GOP discharge petition to force a vote on small business relief.

“I think there’s value in forward motion,” Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) who leads the centrist New Democrat Coalition, said of Pelosi’s plans to draft a new proposal. But Kilmer underscored that the priority should still be to reach a deal that can actually become law: “That’s been the goal along the way.”

“I am hopeful that this will get Republicans to the table to deliver much needed aid,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition. “We should vote on it because there are Americans that need assistance… This political bullshit has been going on for too long.”

Before Pelosi instructed her members to create the new package, moderate Democrats had been circulating a letter to leadership to demand a full House vote on the scaled-back bill and mentioning their interest in the GOP discharge petition. The letter was led by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), all members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, according to multiple sources.

“There’s reason to believe a covid relief agreement is still possible, but the Speaker has indicated she needs to hear from us about its importance,” Phillips wrote in an email to his colleagues.

Another letter had already been circulating among Democratic freshmen, led by Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), that also urged Pelosi to bring up a “revised and streamlined” relief package next week before the House departs.

Many centrist Democrats have argued that voters back home wouldn’t remember the massive legislation the House passed in May, which has since languished in the Senate. Some lawmakers, as part of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, drafted their own approximately $2 trillion proposal in an attempt to restart talks.

But Pelosi has repeatedly countered that Democrats should not put forward a more narrow package when Republicans refuse to budge on their demands.

“We will negotiate with the administration and the Republicans, not with ourselves,” Pelosi said last week when asked about negotiations on the next package.

Some top Democrats, including Hoyer, have privately and publicly disagreed with Pelosi, however. Hoyer said Wednesday that he was pushing for a vote next week on a new Democrat-led bill to reflect the party’s willingness to negotiate, even if the Senate GOP again ignores it.

“I am hopeful and believe that we should pass an alternative which deals with all the issues that we dealt with in ‘Heroes,’ albeit at lesser numbers and lesser time frames, and then we’ll see what happens in the election,” Hoyer told reporters Wednesday.

“People are really hurting,” he said, adding that Democrats’ “best politics” would be to put forward another bill before departing for the October recess.

Asked about Pelosi’s plans on Thursday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) swiftly dismissed the idea of a Democrat-drafted relief package.

“It shows again she’s not serious about getting a Covid relief bill, that she’s just playing politics,” McCarthy said, He added that Republicans still planned to push ahead with their discharge petition, despite the long odds.

Victoria Guida contributed to this report.