A group of congressional Democrats flanked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) at her usual Thursday press conference, with freshmen and party leaders alike laying out the grim realities of a country plagued by COVID-19.
Of the group, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) came out the most aggressive.
On President Donald Trump, Schumer said: “What a despicable man, how low can you go?”
And referring to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY): “The keeper of the graveyard.” (Though in fairness, McConnell brought that one on himself, once calling himself the “groundskeeper of a cemetery.”)
Aside from the creative monikers, the Democrats hit many familiar notes on the dearth of COVID-19-relief, a result of the months-long stalemate between Democratic leadership and White House negotiators.
The entrenchment seemed lately to be putting the squeeze on Pelosi, as moderates in the caucus feared that the American people wouldn’t differentiate between them and the White House as the obstructionists in the negotiations. That pressure has increased with the time passed since the House passed their giant relief package, the HEROES Act, in May.
But on Wednesday, Trump blithely shifted the pressure back to his own party.
“I like the larger amount, I’ve said that,” Trump said from the White House Wednesday evening. “Some of the Republicans disagree, but I think I can convince them to go along with that because I like the larger number. I want to see people get money.”
He tweeted along the same lines, though he incorrectly characterized Democrats’ position on stimulus payments.
Democrats are “heartless”. They don’t want to give STIMULUS PAYMENTS to people who desperately need the money, and whose fault it was NOT that the plague came in from China. Go for the much higher numbers, Republicans, it all comes back to the USA anyway (one way or another!).
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 16, 2020
Democratic leadership quickly jumped on the comments.
“We are encouraged that after months of the Senate Republicans insisting on shortchanging the massive needs of the American people, President Trump is now calling on Republicans to ‘go for the much higher numbers’ in the next coronavirus relief package,” Pelosi and Schumer said in a statement. “We look forward to hearing from the president’s negotiators that they will finally meet us halfway with a bill that is equal to the massive health and economic crises gripping our nation.”
Congressional Republicans have dug in on their opposition to another expensive relief package, and put up a “skinny” $300 billion bill last week, which was blocked by Senate Democrats.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-SD) sounded unwilling to support a higher price point on Wednesday, despite Trump’s comments.
“I’m not sure what higher number means,” he told CNN, “but I know sort of what the threshold is for what we can [get] Republican votes for in the Senate, and if the numbers are too high anything that got passed in the Senate would be passed mostly with Democrat votes and a handful of Republicans. It’s got to have a realistic range if we want to maximize, optimize, the number of Republican senators that will vote for it.”
Unless Republicans bow to the new Trump-imposed pressure, the two sides are still as far apart as ever. The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus unveiled a $1.5 billion proposal this week, but Republicans balked at the price tag and Democrats said it fell short.
Pelosi implied during the press conference that she’d be seeking an even more expensive relief package now, to address the economic wreckage left by the pandemic.
“The needs have only grown — some of the needs for small businesses, needs for restaurants, needs for transportation and the rest,” she said. “So we’re going to have to reallocate some of that money.”
Per Politico, she said the same on a Wednesday call with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who has been representing the Trump administration during COVID-19 relief talks.
The White House’s negotiators, meanwhile, have continued to insist that the only way around the nearly-trillion dollar gap between what both sides want to spend is to focus on standalone bills.
Thursday morning, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told airline CEOs that he supported standalone stimulus bills to bail out their businesses, which have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
“I never thought I’d say $25 billion was a small number, but compared to $1.5 trillion, it’s a rather small amount of additional assistance that could potentially keep 30,000 to 50,000 workers on the payroll,” Meadows told reporters after the meeting.
Getting a bill like that passed would depend on Pelosi’s willingness to bring it to the floor. So far, she’s been largely opposed to “piecemeal” COVID-19 relief, though she made an exception that rule last month when she recalled the House to pass a USPS funding bill.