While Top Democrats Waffle, GOP Rolls Out Plans for Coronavirus Cash Handouts. Is Pelosi Leading From Behind?

Top Democrats hemmed and hawed as Republicans came out with bold plans. “There’s a lack of leadership,” a Democratic Hill staffer said.

U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, allowing the government to boost production of masks and protective equipment. Europe surpassed China in the number of coronavirus infections. Photographer: Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Donald Trump during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 18, 2020. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Republicans are outmaneuvering Democratic Party leaders with their plans to put cash directly into the pockets of working Americans in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

As Washington scrambles to put together an economic relief package, President Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have been dubbed Washington’s crisis negotiation team. But, while Republicans and Democrats in Congress have swiftly put forth plans to immediately give Americans extra cash, Pelosi and her fellow Democratic leaders have moved more slowly, saying that they want to ensure payments benefit Americans most in need rather than indiscriminately giving out cash.

Trump wants to send checks to Americans beginning on April 6, and again on May 18, Vice reported Wednesday. Documents from the Treasury Department lay out a plan to disburse a total of $250 billion to taxpayers in two rounds of direct payments.

On Monday, though, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized GOP calls to issue immediate $1,000 checks to people in response to the virus. “This is not a time for small thinking,” he said. “A single $1,000 check would help someone pay their landlord in March. But what happens after that?” He added, “A thousand dollars goes by pretty quickly if you’re unemployed.”

Schumer said expanding unemployment insurance would help people for a longer period of time and provide a bigger safety net. “If we’re going to provide direct payments, they need to be bigger, more frequent, more targeted. Millionaires shouldn’t get them,” he said.

At a House Democratic caucus meeting last week, Pelosi opposed proposals to send immediate cash payments because she didn’t want them to go to rich people. “Which is a strange opposition to it, because rich people don’t want $1,000,” said one House Democratic staffer, who asked for anonymity. “Democrats treated this pandemic like it was any other legislative business,” the staffer added. “There’s a lack of leadership.”

On Wednesday evening, the Senate passed an emergency relief package, including free coronavirus testing, paid sick leave, and unemployment benefits. The chamber is working on another plan to pass additional measures to send immediate cash to families.

“There’s a lack of leadership.”

On Tuesday, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff Drew Hammil tweeted that the speaker believed that Congress should look into refundable tax credits, expanded universal income, and direct payments, but wanted to ensure those relief plans were targeted to communities that need it the most.

Some progressives questioned that messaging. “If we agree that the crisis is stark and immediate, and we know that precise targeting takes time and administrative effort, why make that a requirement when you can simply disburse the funds *now* and collect from high-income recipients *later*?” New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote on Twitter.

Rank-and-file Democrats in Congress have proposed several plans in recent days, few of which surpass the payout proposals put forward by Republicans like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. But as Trump and the GOP have worked to undercut protections and wages for working people, analysts and pundits say Democratic leadership is squandering their best chance in recent memory to truly lead on the issues most important to their base.

The Hill staffer told The Intercept that after Romney announced his plan, some Democratic House members felt more comfortable coming out with their own. A few had worried Trump and the Republicans wouldn’t get behind the idea, particularly after having to walk back original plans for paid family and sick leave. “I think all of that happened because Romney came out the day before,” the staffer said. “And now Democrats look way behind.”

On the Republican side, members of Congress have proposed plans quickly and with few hangups. Romney and Cotton both called Monday to give people emergency cash. Romney proposed a one-time $1,000 check, and Cotton wanted to add $1,000 to monthly paychecks for people in low- and middle-income brackets, up to $4,000 a month for a family of four. Cotton rolled out an official plan on Tuesday to immediately send $1,000 checks to every person making under $100,000.

Former presidential candidate and Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California on Tuesday tweeted: “I introduced the LIFT Act to give working families up to $500 a month. We need it now more than ever.” Almost an hour later, after a raft of twitter responses criticized the low number, Harris added, “Let me be clear—I wrote the LIFT Act in 2018 because I believe we have always had a duty to help working families. My bill provides up to $500 not once, but every. single. month. During this crisis, we must do much more. I’m working to shape a robust new bill to help families.”

Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Cory Booker of New Jersey, himself a former Democratic presidential candidate, sent a letter on Tuesday to the Senate majority and minority leaders — Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Schumer, respectively —  calling for immediate payments of $2,000 to adults and children in families making under $90,000 per individual, and $180,000 per couple, with subsequent payments decreasing over time. Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Michael Bennet of Colorado, and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, also signed the letter.

In the House, Democrats including Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, who’s also running for Senate, have put forward promising plans. On Friday, Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna of California and Tim Ryan of Ohio proposed an emergency Earned Income Tax Credit in the form of checks of up to $6,000 to Americans who made under $65,000 last year, Khanna’s office said in a press release. More than three-quarters of American workers would qualify for the package.

Update: March 20, 2020
This story has been updated to expand on Sen. Kamala Harris’s tweet about reviving her 2018 cash payout proposal and then a subsequent tweet about how more must be done in the current crisis.

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