Last Friday, the Trump administration offered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a $1.8 trillion stimulus deal, which she promptly rejected. It’s $400 billion smaller than the House Democrats’ plan and probably wouldn’t pass the GOP-controlled Senate. A handful of Democrats are calling on Pelosi to take it anyway, and dare Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to be the one to kill it. Now, Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are back on the phone, and reportedly inching closer to an agreement.
But most House Democrats haven’t spoken out one way or another, in part because no House Democrat other than Pelosi knows what’s actually in the proposal. The top-line spending amounts and some of the major provisions have been confirmed, but no one has seen the text, and no one’s sure what else Republicans have stuffed into it.
Meanwhile, the typical lines of battle in the House have been scrambled. Pressure from Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., urging Pelosi to quickly cave to Trump and take whatever deal is on offer, has been amplified by progressive media outlets more accustomed to urging Democratic leaders to hold firm, while the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus is doing the same, hoping to pick off enough progressives that they can team with Republicans to box McConnell in. It’s politically disorienting, made all the more confusing by Pelosi’s inability to put forward anything other than a callous rationale for her objections.
Pelosi defended her strategy in a contentious interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday, repeatedly lashing out at the host for asking why she wouldn’t accept Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s recent $1.8 trillion offer when Americans are being evicted and waiting in food lines. Blitzer cited the pressure within the Democratic Party to accept a deal, pointing to California Rep. Ro Khanna and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who have called on Pelosi to accept the GOP’s offer.
“I don’t know why you’re always an apologist and many of your colleagues are apologists for the Republican position,” Pelosi told Blitzer. “Ro Khanna, that’s nice. That isn’t what we’re going to do. And nobody’s waiting until February. I want this very much now because people need help now. But it’s no use giving them a false thing just because the president wants to put a check with his name on it in the mail.”
Democratic leaders are asking for $2.2 trillion and object to the amount of funding allocated to state and local governments, as well as what they say is an insufficient strategy for Covid-19 testing and tracing. They also oppose liability protection, which would shield corporations from coronavirus-related lawsuits. But the dispute over the stimulus isn’t limited to policy. Like Pelosi said herself, Democrats are wary of passing a stimulus bill because it would hand President Donald Trump a political victory, and fear that sending $1,200 checks to those who desperately need it could help revive his reelection campaign. They’re holding back, even as millions of Americans face layoffs, unemployment, and potentially evictions.
Pelosi used the same reasoning in a letter to Democratic colleagues earlier this week. “A fly on the wall or wherever else it might land in the Oval Office tells me that the President only wants his name on a check to go out before Election Day and for the market to go up,” she wrote. But the effect is that Republicans are now able to shift the blame for the lack of a stimulus over to House Democrats. On Wednesday, Mnuchin suggested that Democrats are unwilling to make a deal because they don’t want to give Trump a win weeks before the election. On Thursday, Trump tweeted:
Pelosi is holding up STIMULUS, not the Republicans!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 15, 2020
So far, Khanna is the only progressive Democrat in Congress to speak out in support of the $1.8 trillion proposal, which includes a new round of $1,200 checks and a $400 weekly enhanced unemployment insurance benefit. He first came out in favor of Mnuchin’s offer in a tweet over the weekend, saying the $1.8 trillion is “significant” and more than twice the amount of the 2009 stimulus package passed in former President Barack Obama’s first term. Other progressive lawmakers, many of whom criticized the CARES Act from the left, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., have not come out and questioned the strategy of holding out. Omar has demanded that relief pass now, but is asking Republicans to pass the HEROES Act. Ocasio-Cortez has not spoken out about the current offer, though in September, she urged Democrats to hold out for a large package that includes significant health funding and aid for state and local governments.
When asked why other progressive Democrats aren’t being as vocal on the issue, Khanna told The Intercept that a number of Democrats privately agree and he believes more members of Congress are “going to start to come out and say that,” adding that he received a “flurry of supportive texts and calls last night.”
Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition and Problem Solvers Caucus, and Peter Welch, D-Vt., are among the lawmakers privately backing Khanna up. On Wednesday night, they made their support public, hoping to add some pressure for a faster deal within the caucus. Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., has also suggested calling the Trump administration’s bluff.
Khanna said he doesn’t think Democratic leaders should just “sign on the dotted line,” but believes their demands are close enough to the Trump administration’s offer that they should be able to cut a deal. “People are losing their homes, people are facing eviction, people are lining up at food banks to get food for their kids, you have all types of small businesses, restaurants that are facing closure … we have to do something,” he said.
Failing to act before the November election poses a much bigger risk. Though Joe Biden’s chances of winning the presidency next month have never been better, there is no guarantee Democrats take back the Senate. If McConnell retains control, it’s possible there won’t be a relief bill for many months to come.
But a major barrier for many would-be supporters of a bill is that they haven’t seen the text — and they don’t trust Republicans, who seem wholly uninterested in providing any relief for working people. The president has been more erratic than ever, repeatedly contradicting himself on whether he supports a large-scale stimulus deal or not. Trump suddenly blew up stimulus talks that had been going on for months only to later call for a series of smaller bills and then finally come back to the table. McConnell has indicated that the GOP opposes another large stimulus package altogether, and says passing any major pandemic aid legislation is “unlikely in the next three weeks.” Still, Democrats have little to lose in accepting the offer and leaving the bill’s fate up to McConnell.
“Let’s expose that,” Khanna said. “Right now, the country thinks that all of Washington is incompetent and not doing its job. If we advance this deal, then the country will know that it’s one senator from Kentucky that’s holding up the relief and at least there will be clarity.”
In this case, he added, there would be “extraordinary mobilization and pressure” on McConnell that “would at least have a chance of working.”
Unions representing airline workers and others in the transportation industry, which has been devastated by the pandemic, have also been aggressively pushing for a deal. About 32,000 airline workers have been furloughed since the CARES Act protections expired on October 1. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said that countless front-line workers are losing their jobs, homes, and health care — which will have ripple effects throughout local governments, other industries, and lead to a slower recovery down the road.
“Almost every single job is an FAA certified position that requires certain training and qualifications and when you furlough people, they’re not keeping up with their qualifications,” she said. “So when you have demand back you have to spend months and even years, depending on the job, to retrain and recertify. It will not allow us to restart the economy quickly.”
She added that it’s important for Democrats to “lock in” as much relief as possible, but there needs to be pressure on all parties “no matter what.”
“We have been acting at congressional offices all over the country for months now, and we have kept this in the public narrative,” Nelson said. “Many, many people thought that we would move on from this and be talking about other things. We’re simply not going to give Congress any kind of permission to bail.”