House delays vote on Covid relief package in bid for last-minute deal

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speak at the


Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speak at the U.S. Capitol. | Alex Brandon – Pool/Getty Images

House Democrats are waiting one more day before voting on their coronavirus aid package, giving Speaker Nancy Pelosi a final 24 hours to reach a deal with the White House before taking up their own bill and going home.

The House is now expected to vote Thursday on Democrats’ $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package, reversing course from earlier in the day, when lawmakers were told they would vote Wednesday night.

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But Pelosi and top Democrats delayed the vote to buy more for the last-gasp negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — which are widely seen as Congress’ final chance to approve more pandemic aid before the election. Several centrist Democrats had urged party leaders to hold off, arguing it would be fruitless to take a party-line vote if a deal may be clinched.

“We’ll have to see. If we have an agreement, we’re going to pass that agreement, then we’re done until after the election,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Wednesday, noting that timing for the rest of the week remained in flux. “It’s hard to say when we’re going to leave.”

Pelosi and Mnuchin met in the Capitol for 90 minutes on Wednesday afternoon, their first in-person sit down since bipartisan talks fell apart in early August. The meeting follows days of calls between the two with both parties under immense pressure to reach a bipartisan agreement that extends a financial lifeline to tens of millions of increasingly desperate Americans before the election.

In a statement, Pelosi said she and Mnuchin will continue to talk but offered no details on whether a deal was imminent.

“We found areas where we are seeking further clarification. Our conversation will continue,” Pelosi said.

Mnuchin was also positive after meeting with Pelosi and then crossing the Capitol to huddle briefly with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“We made a lot of progress over the last few days,” Mnuchin told reporters as he left the Capitol. “We still don’t have an agreement, but we have more work to do. And we’re gonna see where we end up.”

Still, Senate Republicans remain cool to the talks, skeptical that they will be able to pass a large bill with majority GOP support and unwilling to simply provide a blank check to the White House. Republicans coalesced behind a $300 billion bill earlier this month, but Senate Democrats blocked it after deeming it far short of what’s needed to address the crisis.

McConnell said Thursday that Republicans want another rescue package but Democrats’ $2.2 trillion price tag is simply “too high.”

“It’s safe to say we’re far apart,” McConnell told reporters. “The thought that Senate Republicans would go up to $2.2 trillion is outlandish.”

The final flurry of negotiations in Washington comes as tens of thousands of layoffs are piling up in industries battered by the pandemic, from airlines to theme parks to oil refineries. And workers who were already out of work have gone nearly two months without that extra $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits, which expired in August.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the two biggest sticking points were state and local aid sought by Democrats and liability protections for businesses and workers demanded by Republicans.

Earlier in the morning, Pelosi sought to assure her members that if talks do break down, the party is “closer” to the inauguration of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who could help deliver expansive relief early next year.

“We will have our moment,” Pelosi said on a private Democratic Caucus call, according to several people who dialed in.

The Democratic bill, now slated for a Thursday vote, is largely a messaging tool to help convince voters back home in the remaining weeks before the election that the GOP is to blame for failing to continue federal help, like unemployment benefits that dried up in August.

Mnuchin, who has led negotiations for Senate Republicans, said ahead of the Pelosi summit that his offer would be roughly $1.5 trillion — which still leaves the GOP several hundred billion dollars apart from the Democratic proposal.

That offer is more in line with a bipartisan proposal floated by the Problem Solvers Caucus earlier this month. That plan was swiftly dismissed by Pelosi allies as not going far enough, but has been pitched as a blueprint for negotiations. It is unclear if the speaker would now be willing to accept a deal that’s closer to $1.5 trillion than her proposed $2.2 trillion in relief.

The pared back House bill would provide $436 billion in aid for state and local governments while the Problem Solvers proposal suggested around $500 billion in new funding to meet those shortfalls.

Without an agreement this week, many lawmakers — particularly those in tight races — will leave Washington frustrated and deflated. Democratic leaders said they would remain on-call in October, though there would be virtually no hope of delivering more aid until after the election. Congress has passed four bipartisan bills totaling roughly $3 trillion, but there’s been no action all summer, even as cases continue to surge in several states and millions remain unemployed.

“The American people cannot afford to wait until next year for action,” House Appropriations chief Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday. “So Democrats are making good on our offer to compromise.”

Mnuchin on Wednesday said he doesn’t expect a standalone bill to address the massive airline layoffs expected in the coming days.

When the Democratic bill does come to the floor, Pelosi and her whip team expect to have the votes, despite some grumbling from moderates about provisions tucked into the bill, such as a deduction for state and local taxes.

Progressives have separately voiced concerns that the bill included pension provisions, known as the GROW Act, which is opposed by some labor groups. Others complained that the bill left out a provision related to temporary health care coverage for workers in between jobs, known as COBRA.

“There’s always concerns,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said ahead of the vote. “I feel certain that whatever on the floor we’ll pass.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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