Progressive Groups Are Outraged With “Pathetic” Coronavirus Deal. Congressional Democrats Are Doing Little to Improve It.

None of progressives’ key demands for the coronavirus “Phase 3.5” relief package were met — but few Democrats in the House are opposing the package.

The U.S. Capitol stands in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, April 13, 2020. Congress faces intense pressure to negotiate an interim rescue package this week as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic accelerates across the country. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The U.S. Capitol stands in Washington, D.C., on April 13, 2020. Congress faces intense pressure to negotiate an interim rescue package this week as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic accelerates across the country. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Progressive groups are outraged with the nearly $500 billion interim coronavirus rescue package the Senate passed on Tuesday, urging House Democrats to oppose the “pathetic” deal they say doesn’t come close to providing the relief vulnerable people need while giving away all Democratic leverage for future legislation.

The “Phase 3.5” bill, which is expected to sail through the House this week, left out almost everything Democratic leaders were advocating for. There’s no additional funding for state and local governments, no expanded food stamp benefits, no hazard pay for front-line workers, and no money for the U.S. Postal Service, which have all been basic Democratic priorities. The lack of progressive opposition in Congress has been especially noteworthy, after members of the Progressive Caucus promised to help make future legislation more comprehensive following the hastily passed Phase 3 bill.

“Just as importantly as the inadequate policy provisions, this bill gives away all Democratic leverage.”

While some progressive advocates argue that Democrats didn’t have much leverage on the package to begin with, others note that Democrats control the House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could have led the party to pass its own bill.

“Just as importantly as the inadequate policy provisions, this bill gives away all Democratic leverage,” Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible, said in an emailed statement. “We fought so hard to win back the House in 2018 — to make sure that we had a voice in negotiations like this. So far we’ve heard silence from the House. This bill may be our last chance to get the things we need. [Republican Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell has already said he doesn’t want to push through another bill, and if he does, it won’t be for weeks.”

Progressive groups, including the Center for Popular Democracy, Social Security Works, Sunrise, Demand Progress, and People’s Action have also come out against the interim package. Some of the organizations, to varying degrees, are asking House Democrats to vote against it.

With discussions for a potential Phase 4 package heating up now, the advocacy groups are planning a public pressure campaign to get members and Pelosi on board with policy priorities that address the scope of the crisis.

Meanwhile, Republicans are escalating attacks on Pelosi, blaming her and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for holding up the Phase 3.5 bill and keeping money away from small businesses. President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign released a digital ad targeting Pelosi for showcasing her expensive refrigerator full of fancy ice cream while people around the country are suffering the consequences of the pandemic. It’s possible that Pelosi has been letting the Senate run the show out of fear of being labeled an obstructionist or jeopardizing the reelection of moderate Democrats in competitive seats.

So far, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., is the only Democrat in Congress to come out against the interim package, arguing that progressives shouldn’t “bow to the logic that a crumb is better than nothing.” Ocasio-Cortez is also the only  House Democrat known to oppose the previous multitrillion-dollar coronavirus bailout, which passed the chamber on an unrecorded voice vote after just three hours of debate.

The freshman lawmaker’s district, which covers some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, has been especially devastated by the coronavirus outbreak, fueling her rejection of incrementalism. “It is insulting to think we can pass such a small amount of money in the context of not knowing when Congress is even going to reconvene, pat ourselves on the back, and then leave town again,” she said.

Ocasio-Cortez, without criticizing leadership directly, expressed frustration with letting the Senate set the agenda during an Instagram livestream Tuesday night. She pointed to previous “messaging bills” the House had passed — like last year’s gun control legislation — as an example of the “first thing” the chamber should have done in response to the pandemic, adding that there’s plenty of bold, existing legislation that could have been put to a vote.

For example, Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., introduced the Automatic BOOST to Communities (ABC) Act earlier this month to immediately provide recurring cash payments, funded directly from the Treasury by minting two $1 trillion coins. And Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., introduced a bill to cancel rent and mortgage payments during the pandemic.

“Instead of playing small ball, Congress should immediately pass Rep. Omar’s bill to cancel rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis; Rep. Jayapal’s bill to provide emergency health care coverage during the pandemic; and Reps. Jayapal’s and Tlaib’s bill to provide $2,000 cash assistance to every person, every month, for the duration of the crisis,” People’s Action Director George Goehl said.

The interim package, which would replenish funds for an emergency small business lending program, also includes an additional $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion for coronavirus testing — two necessities that have been framed as GOP concessions. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the legislation is everything they were expecting. “When you look at the package that is going to be passed, it’s almost exactly like the one we asked for two weeks ago, or 12 days ago,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus released its own list of legislative priorities for the next coronavirus response package, including a vote-by-mail requirement for 2020 federal elections, expanded health coverage for all during the pandemic, increased financial relief, and a national moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. CPC members — with allied progressive groups like MoveOn, United We Dream, and Community Change Action, among others — have been pushing these demands under the banner #PutPeopleFirst. New polling from Data for Progress found that their four policy planks receive broad bipartisan support.

In a virtual press conference that featured Progressive Caucus co-chairs Jayapal and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., as well as all four members of “the Squad,” lawmakers voiced concerns with the interim package and tried to set the stage for their CARES-2 policy demands. “We have real concerns about giving away leverage now without getting some of the priorities that we need,” Jayapal said on Monday. “It’s going to be very difficult to support a package that doesn’t have some of the desperate relief we need for state and local governments, for people.”

Despite their rhetoric, CPC leaders have not vocally opposed the Phase 3.5 legislation or presented an alternative, believing that their role is to influence the end result of the package. Yet their demands, like vote-by-mail and extending relief to undocumented immigrants, haven’t been seriously considered. When asked whether the Progressive Caucus would attempt to block the bill, Jayapal replied, “What you are hearing is the level of concern with what has been proposed.”

Though it’s true that Democratic leadership often locks out progressives, the CPC’s lack of leverage is a problem of its own making, critics say. One House Democratic aide, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, argued that progressives like Jayapal and Pocan help set narratives but need to “step up” and organize as a bloc if there’s a Phase 4. The aide said it would mirror “a successful tactic we’ve seen from the Freedom Caucus time and time again,” referring to an influential right-wing bloc of Republicans in the House.

Kaniela Ing, the director of People’s Action’s Climate Justice Campaign, has also been frustrated with the “missed opportunities.” Then again, he added, a lot of their grassroots members have been focusing on mutual aid. “We’re busy just trying to find money and give it to people in our community who are dying and going homeless and have been without jobs for almost a month now,” Ing said.

“Even the Congressional Progressive Caucus, our members on the Hill, like do they really have power?” Ing said. “Even if we were to move them, if we’re not moving like Pelosi and Schumer — and the Republicans are maybe harder to reach — but if we’re not moving them what’s the point? A lot of people are feeling that jadedness. So they’re focusing on fights they know they can win, local- and state-level fights, and mutual aid.”

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