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House Democrats consider scaled-back stimulus proposal in effort to jumpstart stalled talks

Posted September 24, 2020 4:47 p.m. EDT

— House Democrats are preparing a new coronavirus relief package in an effort to shake free negotiations that have been in a stalemate for nearly two months.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has instructed her committee chairs to put together a proposal that would serve as a scaled back version of earlier Democratic offers -- though one that would largely align with the topline number Pelosi has held for several weeks. That topline, of $2.2 trillion, is more than $1 trillion lower than the stimulus proposal House Democrats passed in May. The Trump administration has said it would be willing to consider a proposal somewhere around $1.5 trillion -- meaning even the scaled-back Democratic proposal will exceed the high-end of where Republicans have been willing to go up to this point.

The split on the topline underscores the central issue that has left negotiations moribund since early August, according to members and aides in both parties: the significant difference in views on the scope and scale of the problems that need to be addressed in a second major stimulus package. The first, the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, was passed in both chambers nearly unanimously back in the spring. But since then, Republicans have urged a more targeted approach and objected to Democratic proposals to direct $915 billion to states and localities struggling with budget shortfalls due in large part to their pandemic response.

But frontline House Democrats have become increasingly vocal in recent weeks about the need to do something before the chamber breaks for the campaign season, which it is scheduled to do next week. And some freshman Democrats, who have backed a bipartisan proposal worth between $1.5 trillion-$2 trillion by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, are demanding their leadership put on the floor a bill that can become law -- not a partisan bill intended to send a message.

"If it's a messaging exercise, it's worthless," Rep. Dean Phillips, a freshman Democrat from Minnesota, told CNN. He said a bill worth $2.4 trillion would mean Republicans would likely line up to oppose it, and House Democrats would look "very similar" to Senate Republicans who pushed a partisan bill that failed in their chamber earlier this month and was meant in part to give cover to their party.

"Many of us are getting sick of that," Phillips said.

Pelosi, along with her Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat, has stressed publicly and privately for weeks the need for Democrats to remain united if and when any negotiations recommence. She made clear, in a letter to House Democrats this week, that she viewed that unity as crucial to changes in the stop-gap government funding bill and urged Democrats to maintain it in the stimulus negotiations.

"More needs have emerged for education, small businesses, restaurants, retail and for airlines and others," Pelosi wrote to her colleagues, before noting the unified caucus position on the continuing resolution. "Our unity served us well yesterday. Our unity will again serve us well in the ongoing COVID-19 relief efforts."

A new proposal would give Democratic leaders options as they seek to re-engage in earnest in negotiations with the Trump administration. Should progress be made in talks, the proposal could serve as the vehicle to pass an agreement. Should talks remain stalled, it would give the opportunity for Democrats to vote again on a stimulus proposal. For now, however, Democratic leaders are insistent that the primary goal is to kick start negotiations with the Trump administration.

"I'm talking with my caucus, my leadership, and we'll see what we're going to do," Pelosi told reporters. "But we're ready for a negotiation. That's what we're ready for."

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the lead White House negotiator who has struck multiple deals with Pelosi in the last year, urged Democrats to come to the table to reach an agreement during Senate testimony on Thursday. But he also acknowledged that "right now, we're stuck" due to the significant difference in the overall costs of the competing proposals.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Thursday would not specify which proposal Democrats plan to put on the floor, saying: "Right now, we continue to be focused on negotiating." Hoyer said that Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke "numerous times" on Wednesday as they cut a deal to keep the government open while also discussing a new relief package.

"Mnuchin wants a deal. Pelosi wants a deal. They've been talking about it continuously," Hoyer said.

Asked if White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is as involved now as he was in the last round of talks, which stalled in August, Hoyer added: "I hope not."

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