WASHINGTON—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the chamber should remain in session until lawmakers can strike a bipartisan agreement on new coronavirus relief, but she indicated she wasn’t willing to dramatically scale back Democrats’ current offer, leaving unclear how Congress would be able to break the partisan impasse.
“We have to stay here until we have a bill,” the California Democrat told her caucus on a call, according to a senior aide.
There is no vote on coronavirus-related aid scheduled for the House’s current three-week session, and talks between Democratic leadership and the White House have been nonexistent for weeks.
Many anxious Democratic lawmakers, including incumbents defending competitive seats, have been pressuring party leaders to break the logjam, eager to pass a bill to help struggling Americans even if it gives concessions to Republicans who have called past Democratic proposals bloated.
Moderate Democrats have sent letters to their leadership, encouraging Mrs. Pelosi to resume negotiations with the White House. Mrs. Pelosi has held firm that Democrats should support an expansive package that includes money for state and local governments, schools and extends unemployment assistance and food programs.
“We’ve got to get something across the finish line now,” said Rep. Kendra Horn, an Oklahoma Democrat who represents a district President Trump won in 2016. “This back-and-forth, us-versus-them, tit-for-tat, it doesn’t help my community, it doesn’t help people in my district who need it.”
The top two House Democrats, who are rarely at odds, are in disagreement about the next steps. Unlike Mrs. Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) has expressed a desire to be more flexible on negotiations and pass legislation during the September session, according to aides. Democrats currently have 232 seats in the House, compared with 198 for Republicans and one independent.
Mrs. Pelosi had told White House negotiators she would come down to $2.2 trillion on a bill and hasn’t ruled out a deal. Some Democrats have said they would be willing to discuss a smaller package, potentially moving closer to the $1.5 trillion the White House has said it could accept.
Last week, Senate Democrats blocked Senate Republicans’ whittled-down $300 billion coronavirus aid package, which included $300 in weekly federal jobless payments and aid for small businesses among other items. Even the most impatient Democratic lawmakers don’t see value in taking up the Senate bill, citing the need for more money for state and local governments, public schools and people facing food insecurity that the Senate bill left out.
“It certainly won’t be the skinny bill, and it’s not going to be the Heroes Act,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D., Fla.), referring to the Senate’s bill and the House Democrats’ $3.5 trillion legislation that passed in May. “I think there’s a lot that we can work from.”
“There’s clearly aspects of the deal…both sides agree on,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in remarks to reporters. He ticked off the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, money for schools and a restart of enhanced unemployment payments as programs that have broad bipartisan support.
First-term Democrats who were sworn into Congress during a government shutdown in January 2019 have no desire to spark another when the government’s funding expires on Oct. 1. But some are irked that they might be voting on a short-term spending bill known as a continuing resolution, or CR, but not another relief package before returning home.
“It is a middle finger to the American people to pass just the CR and not a Covid relief bill,” said first-term Rep. Max Rose (D., N.Y.), who sent a letter to congressional leaders on Monday urging them to address both issues.
Lawmakers are still discussing the duration of the spending bill, aides said. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said last week he supported extending the bill into December, while some Democrats want it to last into next year.
On Tuesday morning, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus laid out a roughly $1.5 trillion framework that both Republicans and Democrats in the 50-member group supported. The proposal would give another round of direct checks to Americans, provide $500 billion to state and local governments and carry many aid programs, including jobless benefits, past inauguration day. Lawmakers said the proposal moves the debate past the political frenzy around the election.
The price tag is down significantly from the $3.5 trillion bill that House Democrats passed in May, known as the Heroes Act.
Leaders of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of more than 100 business-friendly House Democrats, said they didn’t want the House to adjourn for another break before voting on a coronavirus-aid package.
“Our constituents are hurting right now, and they urgently need help,” Rep. Derek Kilmer (D., Wash.), the group’s chairman, told reporters Monday evening.
Lawmakers in the group said they shared Mrs. Pelosi’s goal of a sweeping deal, but if that weren’t possible, they wanted to make sure that some key programs are extended.
At a minimum, said Rep. Scott Peters (D., Calif.), Congress should restore the federal unemployment insurance benefits that expired in late July, boost food-stamp assistance and approve a more generous increase in federal spending on Medicaid.
“It seems particularly cruel and also economically unwise to let those go to zero,” Mr. Peters, a member of the coalition, told reporters.
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