The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congress’s stimulus impasse must end — even if it means Democrats accepting a smaller deal

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at a news conference last month. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

AS THE coronavirus caseload — and death toll — mounts across almost the entire United States, uncertainty reigns regarding not only the damage it will ultimately do to public health, but also the damage it will do to the still-recovering U.S. economy. That is to say, it’s still unclear whether the impact will be merely negative or something much worse than that. Timely action from Washington could make the difference between squandering the economic gains that have been achieved so far — thanks in large part to previous federal aid — and enabling job-creating growth to continue into 2021.

Unfortunately, Congress remains in a partisan standoff centering not so much on the necessity for aid, about which there is at least nominal consensus, as on the quantity of additional support. For the good of the country, this impasse must end, even if it means that Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have to accept a smaller package than they have insisted upon ­heretofore.

When negotiations between Ms. Pelosi and the Trump administration broke off before the Nov. 3 election, the latter had upped its offer to $1.9 trillion, but the speaker objected that the proposal lacked details such as a plan for containing the virus, and in any case was smaller than a $2.2 trillion plan the House passed in early October. Meanwhile, President Trump was sending mixed signals, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was refusing to accept anything more than $500 billion.

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If Ms. Pelosi’s strategy was to hold out until a Democratic sweep increased her leverage, it didn’t quite work out. Though Joe Biden is president-elect, Democrats retained the House by a narrow majority and control of the Senate awaits two Georgia runoffs. The precise distribution of clout in Washington is anyone’s guess — but the nation’s needs, especially those of the working poor and the unemployed, are beyond question. Priorities for a new package include extending eviction limits and special unemployment benefits for gig workers, another round of forgivable no-interest loans to small businesses, and aid to state and local governments, which are facing a likely $240 billion revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year, according to new estimates by economists Jeffrey Clemens and Stan Veuger. Possibly at least some elements may be attached to a spending bill that Congress must pass by Dec. 11 to avoid a partial government shutdown.

Mr. Biden has sent the right signals to enable a deal. The president-elect has called for passing a bill “quickly,” while endorsing a dollar figure close to Ms. Pelosi’s so as not to undermine her bargaining position. As the speaker well knows, cutting a major legislative deal across party lines is the hardest thing to do in American politics — yet, often, the most necessary. As she also knows, there is a chance that Mr. McConnell and the president will not sign on the dotted line even if she does redouble her efforts. Nevertheless, the good of the country requires her to try.

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