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Pelosi wrangles wary Dems ahead of vote on $3 trillion relief package

As late as Thursday night, Pelosi was working to soothe discontent within her caucus after fielding complaints from multiple members about pension provisions in the bill during a private caucus call.

Pelosi has also had to tamp down unrest from the caucus’ most liberal members, several who were outraged that the bill didn’t go far enough to provide financial certainty for workers, even as U.S. employment numbers soared past 36 million this week.

In one particularly tense moment earlier this week, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) confronted Pelosi on a caucus-wide call, decrying the fact that her popular proposal to have the federal government cover payrolls for struggling businesses was left out of the final package.

Jayapal and fellow Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) even pressed Pelosi to punt the vote until next week to allow more time for negotiations but the California Democrat refused.

On Thursday, Jayapal and Pocan sent a survey to their members asking how they would vote on the final bill, as well as the procedural vote that sets up debate beforehand — a floor strategy that would temporarily block the bill from coming to the floor. Progressive leaders have still not signaled they will seek to block the package even as they have not publicly declared support for the bill.

“We must respond appropriately. This is no time for half-measures or to only help half the country,” Jayapal wrote in a tweet late Thursday.

But in a sign of Pelosi’s hold over her caucus, most Democrats have relegated their complaints to private calls with colleagues and leadership, declining to criticize the speaker publicly.

Many lawmakers had already completed their long treks to Washington by Friday morning, some opting to drive hundreds of miles rather than board a plane to reduce their exposure to the virus. Others had no choice but to fly, with some alarmed by scores of passengers on board.

The series of votes will stretch late into the evening on Friday as lawmakers vote in groups and the chamber is cleaned multiple times throughout the day, all in an effort to limit the possible spread of the deadly virus.

Lawmakers are also encouraged to don masks and frequently use hand sanitizer while in the chamber, now normal practices that further underscore how the deadly pandemic has upended every aspect of American life, including its foundational norms.

The House is also expected to easily approve the resolution to allow for proxy voting, which would change the chamber’s rules only for the 116th Congress, which ends in January.

Lawmakers of both parties have privately and publicly voiced concerns about returning to Washington, where hundreds of their colleagues and even more staff would be gathered in the petri dish that is the U.S. Capitol complex. The Senate has been working in D.C. for two weeks.

A handful of lawmakers have tested positive over recent months, as well as some of their aides. Capitol staff, too, have become infected: More than a dozen Capitol police officers have tested positive since late March.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — who has led talks with GOP leaders on the remote voting plans — has forcefully argued that the House should be able to vote, debate and hold hearings amid the pandemic.

“In the 40 years I have been here, there is not an instance where I think this would be justified until now,” Hoyer said in a meeting of the House Rules Committee on Thursday.

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Pelosi unveils new $3 trillion coronavirus relief plan

Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, have objected that one of their chief priorities — federal funding to cover payrolls for businesses — wasn’t included in the House measure.

Jayapal pushed hard for inclusion of the “Paycheck Guarantee” program in the new bill, but Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) turned it down, saying the proposal is too costly and complicated. The Jayapal plan — which is backed by more than 60 House Democrats — has a price tag of more than $600 billion for six months. Neal instead supported an extension of the “Employee Retention Tax Credit” backed by Democratic moderates, which still costs more than $200 billion.

Jayapal’s complaints, which she raised directly to Pelosi on a caucus call on Tuesday, reflect broader concerns among Democrats, some of whom feel Pelosi and her committee leaders have largely drafted the bill without rank-and-file input. Republicans and the White House also were not involved in drafting the measure.

But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday that he and Pelosi “believe the Jayapal proposal has great merit to it” and said it could be considered in future relief bills.

“This is not going to be the last word nor the final word as we go forward. And her proposal is certainly under great discussion,” Hoyer said. “We want all members to support this legislation with that provision in or out.”

Progressives privately acknowledge they are in a difficult spot to push Democratic leaders in any direction. Even the most liberal Democrats say they’re unlikely to stage an uprising against this bill because they can’t vote against vital aid for their districts, depriving themselves of key leverage that might otherwise help get their priorities into the bill.

Democrats released their sprawling package, known as the Heroes Act, on Tuesday afternoon. The roughly 1,800-page legislation includes $875 billion for cash for state and local governments, what Democratic leaders say is the centerpiece of the fifth coronavirus relief package. It also includes $20 billion each for tribal nations and for U.S. territories.

The legislation also includes a slew of liberal priorities left out of previous bills, including $75 billion for mortgage relief and $100 billion in assistance for renters, $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service and $3.6 billion to shore up elections.

The bill goes further than previous bills in other ways, too: It would include another round of $1,200 checks for adults making up to $75,000. Under this bill, kids would receive the same amount, instead of $500. It would make $10 billion available to small businesses that haven’t received funds from the Paycheck Protection Program.

It also includes policy changes sought long before the pandemic, such as restoring the ability to deduct state and local taxes, which had been capped in the GOP tax bill in 2017. Another provision would allow cannabis businesses expanded access to bank accounts and loans.

The package also includes a bipartisan bill related to the collection of hate crimes data.

Before the measure was released, Pelosi had cautioned members on a Tuesday call that some would be “disappointed” by what was left out of the bill. Pelosi said she and her committee chairs had initially assembled $4 trillion worth of policy proposals, but were forced to winnow it down during final drafting.

“Everything is big, and we can’t do everything in this bill,” Pelosi said, according to people on the call. Democrats have signaled that more legislation would follow, such as a recovery package with major infrastructure investments.

The Democratic bill represents a dramatic escalation of the party’s efforts to deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic. The shutdown of the U.S. economy has spurred unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression, and Democrats, like Trump and Republicans, are struggling to respond.

Republicans dismissed the bill even before the text was public, calling it a Democratic wishlist that would go nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate. It’s unlikely Congress passes another relief package before June due to Republican resistance, despite Pelosi’s efforts to get her bill to the House floor by the end of this week.

“I don’t think there’s any sense of urgency until we see how some of these programs that are already authorized and funded are working, and it seems like, at least right now, they’re working pretty well,” Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate GOP leader, told reporters Tuesday in the Capitol.

“Before we borrow the next $3 trillion, let’s see how this works,” Thune (R-S.D.) said.

Still, Pelosi and her deputies hope it will pressure Senate GOP leaders into negotiations on a next package, even as McConnell has said Congress should hit “pause” until lawmakers can determine the success of its previous bills.

Democrats acknowledge that their behemoth proposal, whose summary alone is 90 pages, is more of a talking point than legislation that they expect to become law.

The coronavirus relief aid isn’t the House’s only legislative work this week. Pelosi and other top Democrats will also push through a House rules change that will allow proxy voting and remote hearings.

There had been bipartisan talks between Hoyer and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on the issue, but the two sides haven’t been able to find a compromise. Democrats now say they will move ahead with a rules change anyway.

The House Rule Committee will meet Thursday to approve the plan, which will allow lawmakers to cast votes remotely for colleagues who can’t travel to Washington amid the outbreak. The full House would then take up the rules change — which would only be in effect during this current crisis — on Friday.

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Pelosi to lay down multitrillion-dollar marker with new coronavirus package

“We will put our bill on the floor, that I can defend, that my people say they need. That’s why I’m supporting any and all measures that protect paychecks,” Horsford said in an interview. “I don’t care if they’re progressive ideas, I don’t care if they’re Republican ideas.”

Pelosi has signaled in calls with members this week that the direct payment proposal — which would likely cost hundreds of billions of dollars — could be included in the leadership plan. But lawmakers and aides say they’re still unsure if it’ll be in the final bill. One member familiar with the discussions said: “It depends what hour you ask.”

“I’m working very hard to get it included. I think it’s extremely important,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a senior progressive, said in an interview. “This will directly impact the most vulnerable people. It’s just a new way of people making sure they have their jobs and have their wages.”

Democratic leaders, led by Pelosi, have been holding dozens of hours of caucus calls in recent weeks. Pelosi herself spoke to both the Congressional Problem Solvers Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus this week, in addition to dialing into the weekly meeting of Democratic chairs and a separate one with the whip team.

Pelosi and her top lieutenants have given several major clues about the next major package. The centerpiece, they say, will be $1 trillion for cash-strapped state and local governments, some of which are on the brink of slashing public services. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell previously indicated that any state aid would need to be married to liability protections for businesses and employees in the next package.

Pelosi has also said funding for expanded coronavirus testing and contact tracing will be a major component of their bill, as well as new protections and potentially higher pay for frontline workers.

The result could be a Democratic-driven package that draws few, if any, GOP votes on the House floor. Democrats, though, hope it will jump start negotiations with Republican leaders who have so far insisted that Congress should wait to gauge the ongoing multi-trillion dollar response before delivering more aid.

In the backdrop of negotiations, Pelosi and other top Democrats are wrestling with a far different debate related to the coronavirus — when and how to bring back the House into full session.

Pelosi has made clear she wants the full House to convene as soon as next week to vote on the next trillion-dollar-plus package. But other top Democrats have been less confident that it will be ready by then — or that it would be safe to bring back members.

“We will vote when it’s ready,” Hoyer told members on the caucus call Thursday, vowing that members would have 72-hours notice to return.

Pelosi and Hoyer are in talks with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) about how to proceed with proxy voting and remote hearings, to allow members to conduct business without needing to risk spreading the disease by returning to the Capitol. The Senate, with a far smaller membership than the House, returned to Washington on Monday.

Yet a bipartisan deal on that rules package still seems out of reach, according to sources in both parties. Hoyer reiterated Thursday that Democrats would push through the rules change next time the House meets, with or without GOP support, a move many in the caucus have been pushing for.

“I think we should have proxy voting. It’s not safe coming from such long distances,” said Lee, who is in her 70s and flew from California for the House vote two weeks ago. “Members of Congress sacrifice a lot and we will continue to do that for the American people but we have to be smart in how we do this.”

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