The four progressive members of Congress known as the “Squad” are pressing House Democratic leaders to provide a clear timeline for a vote on a more ambitious “Phase 4” relief package to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
The House easily passed an interim stimulus bill on Thursday that was crafted in the Republican-controlled Senate with input from House Democratic leaders.
Of the four “Squad” members, only Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) voted against the legislation. Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.) cast votes for the relief bill, which provides nearly $500 billion in new aid for small businesses, hospitals and testing equipment.
But the progressive lawmakers, like many left-wing activists outside Congress, all also denounced the bill as inadequate. They are calling for additional aid to cities and states, an increase in food stamp assistance, national measures to protect renters from eviction, and the inclusion of undocumented immigrants in new benefits.
The lawmakers have privately pressed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to provide a clear idea of when the House will vote on a more ambitious “Phase 4” bill that includes progressive priorities. The Squad wants details on that timeline before House members, who came to Washington to vote on Thursday, return to their districts.
“We need a timeline. We can’t just keep kicking the can down the road,” Pressley’s chief of staff Sarah Groh told HuffPost.
Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley and Tlaib all represent urban, working-class communities with large immigrant populations that have become hot spots for the pandemic. Pressley’s district includes Chelsea, the predominantly Latino city outside Boston that local officials contend has the highest COVID-19 infection rate in Massachusetts. Getting aid to the city’s undocumented immigrants is thus a particularly high priority for Pressley.
“Members need to be able to show their constituents that they’re working to get them more relief,” said Jeremy Slevin, a senior aide to Omar. “How can we send Congress home without a clear timeline on the next package?”
The Squad’s public stance was notable because it acted as a cohesive unit independent of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, of which they are members. The CPC has over 90 members of varying ideologies, making it difficult to act as a bloc in order to pressure Democratic leadership in the way that the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus has done to Republican leadership.
The co-chairs of the CPC, Reps. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Mark Pocan (Wis.), issued a statement on Thursday evening lamenting that the legislation they voted to pass “comes nowhere close to meeting the needs of families across this country.” Rather than join the Squad’s call for an immediate timeline for voting on new legislation, the two lawmakers reiterated demands they made to Pelosi, together with other CPC leaders, in a letter two weeks ago insisting that new relief legislation protect workers’ paychecks, “provide economic relief,” “protect public health” and “safeguard” elections.
Pelosi’s office insists that Democrats were able to negotiate significant concessions from Senate Republicans in negotiations. Their professed victories include doubling the funding Republicans originally wanted to offer and implementing a national coronavirus testing system that Republicans had also opposed.
Pelosi told Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne on Wednesday that the Democratic-controlled House will pass its own relief bill first in the next round of lawmaking. That bill will include liberal priorities like aid to cities and states, food stamp increases, universal voting by mail, and hazard pay for front-line health care workers. “If [the Senate wants] to pass their own bill, we’ll go to conference,” she said.
But Pelosi’s office declined to provide a concrete timeline for such a vote, saying that it depends both on how long it takes to craft the legislation and what the U.S. Capitol’s physician advises in terms of public health precautions.
The Squad members “have said that they want to move quickly on doing Phase 4,” a Pelosi spokesperson told HuffPost. “Nancy Pelosi has been saying that for a month.”
Progressive activists have, for over a month, been voicing their dissatisfaction with congressional Democrats’ legislative response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The last time Congress passed a COVID-19 relief bill, at the end of March, House members had already returned to their districts, but the Senate was still in Washington.
As a result, House Democrats, already wary of returning to Washington to vote in person, could not credibly threaten to reassemble to pass their own bill. The Republican-controlled Senate shaped the $2.2 trillion relief bill, which included relief for small businesses and workers, such as a $600-a-month increase in minimum unemployment benefits as well as a $500 billion corporate bailout fund. It has since emerged that it has been considerably easier for major corporations to access aid than for small businesses or workers, who have had trouble navigating the Small Business Administration bureaucracy and state unemployment offices, both of which are inundated with historically high demand.
Democratic leaders promised at the time that they could address the bill’s deficiencies in subsequent legislation.
The House’s failure this week to win a greater share of progressive priorities, theoretically by passing their own bill and forcing legislative reconciliation, prompted a rare round of public criticism and calls to vote no from leading figures on the activist left.
A statement from Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, was typical.
“Congress still hasn’t delivered the relief we need or addressed the racial inequalities this crisis has exposed,” Mitchell said. “Members of Congress should vote no and work on a new package that finally puts people first.”
One factor that compounds the challenge for progressives clamoring for more dramatic action is the inability of the House to legislate from afar due to the health risks associated with COVID-19. Thursday’s vote was conducted in stages and with other precautions to help guard members’ safety.
Pelosi signed off on a plan last week that would temporarily create a system for members to vote on legislation remotely by instructing lawmakers who can appear in person how to vote on their behalf. On Monday, Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) briefed the entire House Democratic Caucus on the new plan, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) advised caucus members that they would be voting Thursday on the rule change.
But on Wednesday, Pelosi announced that the House would not be voting on the adoption of such a system when the House assembled this week. Instead, citing the objections of Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), she has tasked a bipartisan group of lawmakers with reviewing the matter.
Pelosi’s spokesperson dismissed the idea that the bipartisan task force was a way to postpone proxy voting indefinitely. The spokesperson noted that the task force already met on Thursday.
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