Bipartisan Talks on COVID Aid Continue As House Adjourns

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) continues to talk with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about a possible compromise coronavirus aid package acceptable to Congressional Democrats and the Trump Administration, but the two sides remain far apart, and Congressional Republicans have yet to be convinced of the need for another multi-trillion-dollar package.

The House and Senate have now adjourned until next week. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) notified House members this afternoon that there was no set pre-election return date: “Members are advised that no additional votes are expected in the House this week. Members are further advised that as conversations surrounding additional coronavirus relief legislation continue, it is possible that the House will meet during the month of October. Members will be given at least 24-hours’ notice before the House will be called back to session.” (The Senate schedule is up in the air because of the Supreme Court nomination and the question of how many objections to routine business will be made by Democrats who are angry about the timing of the nomination.)

Pelosi and Mnuchin have been talking about a new COVID bill, on and off, for months, but the talks got much more serious this week as the planned House pre-election adjournment neared. (It has become clear that President Trump really, really wants another round of $1,200 checks and wire transfers to go out to registered voters between now and Election Day that say “From: Donald J. Trump” and that he is willing to go farther towards a large overall dollar total in a new COVID bill than most Republicans are comfortable with in order to get those checks.)

It has now been over four months since the House passed the $3.4 trillion Heroes Act, and enough Democratic members from vulnerable districts were anxious to hold a new vote on some kind of coronavirus assistance that Pelosi ordered House committee chairmen last week to produce a downsized version of the Heroes Act for a pre-election vote. That legislation, “Heroes 2,” is billed as spending $2.2 trillion, but (a) we don’t have an official score yet from the Congressional Budget Office (Democrats told us Heroes 1 was a $3 trillion bill, but CBO scored it at $3.445 trillion), and (b) that purported $2.2 trillion total is net of offsetting tax increases of around $250 billion, which are non-starters for many Republicans.

Congressional Republicans have been loath to break the nine-figure threshold on any new bill, even though Mnuchin has offered $1.5 trillion (gross) to Pelosi. In addition, selling a COVID bill to the Congressional GOP without the lawsuit limitation provisions that have been Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) priority #1 since April would be extremely difficult (yet it is also extremely difficult to see Democrats agreeing to such limits).

The promised vote on Heroes 2 kept getting pushed back, as talks between Pelosi and Mnuchin continued, but the vote finally took place last night. All Republicans who were present voted “no,” as did Libertarian Justin Amash (MI). 18 vulnerable Democrats also voted against the bill, and Pelosi and Hoyer had to work the floor to prevent more defections. The final vote tally was 214 to 207, and it was actually closer than that, since Republicans generally refuse to take part in the proxy voting process established by the House under COVID. The 10 absentees were all Republicans, and if all of them had simply filled out the proxy form and allowed their physically present colleagues to vote for them (as 43 Democrats did on that vote), then the bill would have been defeated. (Or, more likely, Pelosi and Hoyer would have had to twist enough arms into getting two or three of the 18 Democratic “no” votes to switch to “yes.”)

(The 18 Democrats who voted against the bill were Reps. Brindisi (NY), Cartwright (PA), Cunningham (SC), Davids (KS), Golden (ME), Horn (OK), Horsford (NV), Lamb (PA), Lipinski (IL), Luria (VA), McAdams (UT), Peterson (MN), Phillips (MN), Rose (NY), Schrader (OR), Spanberger (VA) and Torres Small (NM).)

The House passed Heroes 2 in such a way that it would be very easy, procedurally, for the Senate to take it up, substitute compromise bill text for the House-passed text, and send it back to the House. But in order for the Senate to act first on any (hypothetical) compromise deal reached by Pelosi and Mnuchin, McConnell would have to be put in charge of writing the final legislative text – and McConnell has stayed far away from the negotiations so far. It would be much more likely that, if Pelosi and Mnuchin come up with a deal, the House would come back and pass a new bill, then go back home and see what the Senate does (if anything).

Elsewhere in this issue, we describe the transportation-related provisions of Heroes 2:

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