WASHINGTON ― After months of little to no movement, Congress is finally making strides toward another coronavirus relief package ― and all it took was Democrats embracing half of a deal that was already on the table.
As lawmakers prepare to adjourn this month, party leaders on both sides of the aisle are signaling optimism about reaching a compromise they’ve struggled with since before expanded unemployment benefits ended in July.
“There is momentum,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday at a news conference, calling any bill passed “just a start” and expressing confidence about further legislative action under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration next year.
Pelosi said she spoke to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday, noting they both agreed on the path ahead. That path seems to involve including coronavirus relief with a bill Congress needs to pass by Dec. 11 in order to avert a partial government shutdown. It was the first time the Kentucky Republican has directly engaged with Democrats in talks over another coronavirus stimulus package, and it signaled the first real movement since before the election.
The source of renewed optimism is a $908 billion bipartisan package that includes new unemployment assistance, money for vaccine distribution, and more aid for businesses and state governments. It has picked up support from over a dozen senators from both parties and seems to have the support of most Democrats in the House.
Even some conservative deficit hawks have signaled they’re open to the proposal.
“It’s not too far off from what the Republican plan is, so I think as long as it stays targeted doesn’t involve any of the extraneous material, you’re gonna get pretty broad support,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) told HuffPost on Wednesday.
Hopes are running high, but no one has seen a bill yet. The group of senators drafting the measure are hoping to unveil legislative text early next week. The details of the most contentious issues that held up talks for months have yet to be resolved ― namely a liability shield for businesses and hospitals that Democrats oppose, as well as billions of dollars in assistance to state and local governments that Republicans have derided as “blue state bailouts.”
Time is extremely tight, and things could still fall apart in the coming days as more details trickle out.
McConnell has already begun casting doubt on the deal, issuing a statement on Wednesday saying the only proposal President Donald Trump was prepared to sign was McConnell’s $500 billion package. Coronavirus stimulus could also break down if appropriators aren’t able to finish writing an omnibus bill before next week, forcing Congress to instead pass a continuing resolution just to keep the lights on, and Republicans insist that the CR simply be a clean extension of government funding.
But, for now, the prospect of Congress providing more aid to those struggling amid the pandemic is brighter than ever ― even if, for some Democrats, the $908 billion package is a major step down from the $1.8 trillion package that the Trump administration offered Pelosi less than two months ago.
“It shows that we should have taken the $1.8 [trillion] ― and I worried about this,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who was perhaps the most vocal Democrat urging Pelosi to take the deal in October. “I said, ‘Let’s take this or after the election it’s going to be far less.’”
Khanna said it wasn’t an opinion that this incoming proposal from the bipartisan group of senators would be worse than the $1.8 trillion offer; it was a fact.
“It’s worse by almost every metric,” he said. “What is the metric that it’s better than?”
He noted that it wouldn’t provide as much money for expanded unemployment, or for state and local governments. It would also give more money to the GOP-favored Paycheck Protection Program, which has had little stimulative effect and has mostly gone to support larger businesses.
Khanna said the decision to turn down that earlier offer was obviously a mistake. “Now we need to do the best we can,” he said.
Pelosi sees the situation much differently.
She defended her approach on Friday when asked whether her monthslong insistence on a larger stimulus package was a mistake, citing rapid vaccine development and Biden’s election as reasons why dynamics on Capitol Hill have changed.
“That was not a mistake. That was a decision that has taken us to a place where we can do the right things without, should we say, ‘other considerations’ in the legislation that we don’t want,” Pelosi said. “I’m very proud of where we are.”
Democrats have long pushed for a larger stimulus. In May, House Democrats passed a $3 trillion package. And in October, they passed a $2.2 trillion measure.
But Democratic leaders are trying to convince their members to get behind the $900 billion deal, arguing that it may not be the final stimulus.
“Things change on January 20th,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), the chief deputy whip for House Democrats, told HuffPost on Thursday night, referring to Biden’s Inauguration Day.
Democrats, including Pelosi, are banking on the idea that there may yet be another bill under a new president. Even Biden has called the new bipartisan effort “just a start,” and has urged Congress to act again in January.
But Democrats have made this mistake before.
When Barack Obama entered office in early 2009, Democrats knew they needed an economic stimulus larger than $1 trillion to lift the economy out of a recession. Republicans, however, insisted that the package not enter into the 13 figures.
So Democrats went along with a $787 billion stimulus, assuring themselves that they could always pass another round. It never happened. Republicans took the House back in the first midterm elections and insisted on actually cutting spending in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
When HuffPost pressed Kildee on the idea of a second stimulus, even he acknowledged it might not happen.
“There’s never a guarantee, that’s for sure,” he said.
Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.