House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced on a conference call with House Democrats on Tuesday morning that the House would remain in session until a new agreement is struck, saying, “We have to stay here until we have a bill,” according to Democratic aides.
But within hours, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) clarified that lawmakers would not actually remain in Washington beyond their scheduled recess date of Oct. 2, and instead would be required to be on call in case they must return. This is the same arrangement lawmakers have worked under for more than a month without any progress. White House officials have remained open to a deal but have not expressed an urgency to make concessions.
Pelosi has been unwilling to budge from the position she’s held for months -- that Democrats should hold out for a wide-ranging bill with a pricetag of at least $2 trillion, covering a multitude of issues from unemployment insurance to testing to the Post Office. Increasing numbers of rank-and-file Democrats are beginning to question that approach.
Frustration boiled over on a call the centrist New Democrat Coalition held with Pelosi and Hoyer on Tuesday. The coalition includes a number freshman lawmakers who beat Republicans in 2018 and are now facing tough re-election races in GOP-leaning seats.
At one point, pressed by Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) about why members shouldn’t physically stay in town to wait for a deal, Pelosi suggested Rice should poll fellow lawmakers on the issue.
After Pelosi got off the call, Hoyer faced more pushback over the situation, and expressed sympathy but said repeatedly that he did not want to undermine Pelosi.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), responded to a comment from a fellow lawmaker who said members should be following their convictions by saying: “My conviction is to actually do my goddamn job and come up with a solution for the American people. We have to bring something to the floor.”
Details of the call were first reported by Politico and confirmed by several Democratic aides familiar with them, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss them.
The developments occurred on the first full day the House was back in session from its August recess, with lawmakers eyeing a three-week sprint that must also include passing a stopgap spending bill to fund the government by Sept. 30.
Pelosi has not moved from the position she’s held ever since the House passed the $3.4 trillion Heroes Act in May, legislation Republicans and the Trump administration dismissed as they waited months to start talks that ultimately went nowhere.
On the morning conference call with the House Democratic caucus Pelosi rejected the notion of a slimmed-down, or “skinny,” bill, such as the $300 billion measure Democrats blocked last week in the Senate.
“A skinny bill is not a deal. It’s a Republican bill,” Pelosi said on the conference call.
With Republicans unwilling to agree to legislation anywhere near the scope Pelosi wants, some Democrats have begun to discuss other options. There are roughly 29 million Americans receiving some form of jobless aid, and many households are struggling to pay their rent and other bills. State and city budgets are also under severe strain and many have cut large parts of their workforce as they wait for Congress to decide whether to approve more assistance.
The stock market has mostly recovered its losses from March, however, and President Trump has suggested he thinks a robust recovery is underway. But Democrats around the country, including many freshmen who flipped GOP seats in 2018 and helped the party retake the House majority, represent districts where individuals, small businesses, local governments and schools remain in dire need of help.
Some House Democrats in tough reelection races are under growing pressure to take action to help their constituents. In one race in Virginia, where Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria is defending her seat against the Republican she beat in 2018, an outside group has run ads attacking her for inaction on coronavirus relief.
Luria said in an interview Tuesday that she was pleased to hear Pelosi pledge action.
“The truth is that the bottom-line number isn’t as important as the fact that we need to as a country respond to people who are in need during an unprecedented public health crisis,” Luria said.
Another Democrat in a contested race, Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), told reporters Tuesday that action on coronavirus relief was crucial for him and his colleagues — even if it’s just to demonstrate to voters that Republicans are the ones who are unwilling to compromise.
“I think that if people are able to see us stay here and offer a proposal that is easy to understand, simple and tailored to the pandemic, regardless of what size it is, and it’s rejected by them, then we will have done an important thing which is show people that we’re reasonable,” Lamb said.
Pelosi and her top lieutenants have shown scant interest in considering a bill with a price tag under $2 trillion, however.
The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House released its own attempted compromise Tuesday morning, a $1.5 trillion proposal that could grow larger or smaller depending on infection rates and vaccine progress. Trump administration officials have encouraged the group’s efforts, but top Democrats rejected it out of hand, with eight House committee chairs issuing a joint statement saying it “falls short of what is needed to save lives and boost the economy.”
Congress passed four bills totaling about $3 trillion in aid in March and April, but has not acted since. Many of the programs agreed to in the initial round of spending have expired, including a $600 weekly enhanced unemployment benefit that ran out July 31. Trump stepped in last month with some limited executive actions, including replacing the $600 benefit with one half that size, but the money for that is now running dry.
White House adviser Jared Kushner suggested in an interview Tuesday on CNBC that a deal might have to wait.
“The hope is that we’ll still get to a deal. It may have to be after the election,” Kushner said.
At the same time, if it becomes clear in coming days that no comprehensive deal is in reach, Pelosi may start holding votes on individual issues such as funding for coronavirus testing, to show that House Democrats are trying to address the problem.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.