House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled their latest round of coronavirus relief legislation as they seek to put pressure on Republicans to start negotiations for additional measures to contain the pandemic’s impact on U.S. workers.
The House is currently expected to pass the legislation on Friday along party lines. The lack of GOP support will put the onus on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team to stave off potential reservations from progressives who have called for more expansive proposals to help struggling workers.
The 1,815-page, roughly $3 trillion legislation is a grab bag of top Democratic priorities ranging from funding for food assistance, state and local governments, contingency plans for vote by mail in the November elections, another round of direct stimulus payments to individuals and hazard pay for essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
The House Democrats’ legislation is meant to serve as a documentation of their priorities heading into any future talks with Republicans and the White House, although most of its provisions are not expected to become law.
“We must think big for the people now, because if we don't it will cost more in lives and livelihood later,” Pelosi said during an address in the Capitol after unveiling the legislation.
The House is expected to pass the legislation on Friday along party lines.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the White House have called for a “pause” on considering additional relief legislation, instead arguing that lawmakers should first spend more time reviewing the implementation of measures already in place.
McConnell has stressed that liability protections for businesses are a “red line” for Republicans in any future negotiations. He said on Tuesday that GOP senators are working on a “major package” of reforms to protect reopening businesses from lawsuits and “raise the liability threshold” for medical malpractice lawsuits.
“We’re going to insist on doing narrowly targeted legislation if and when we do legislate again, and we may well,” McConnell told reporters.
Democrats have been wary of McConnell’s push to expand liability protections for businesses and warn that they won’t support anything that they think could weaken protections for workers, instead calling for requiring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a standard for protecting health care and other workers at risk of exposure to COVID-19.
But first, House Democratic leaders will have to get progressives on board.
The chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), sent a letter to leadership on Tuesday calling to delay a vote on the bill until next week.
They asked for a Democratic caucus meeting "to discuss the bill and any amendments that might be needed to ensure that it truly reflects the priorities and the work of the entire caucus."
Jayapal has championed a proposal that would provide direct federal grants to businesses to help with paying rent and fully maintaining workers’ salaries up to $100,000, but it did not make it into the bill.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that the idea “has great merit to it” and indicated that Democrats might consider it in future legislation.
"This is not going to be the last word, or the final word, as we go forward," Hoyer said.
In the meantime, their latest proposal includes provisions to expand upon the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act enacted in March and push for proposals championed by the left to enhance the social safety net.
The legislation would provide a 15 percent increase to the maximum food stamp benefit, as well as $150 million to help local food banks meet increased demand due to laid off or furloughed workers unable to afford food.
It also includes measures to help homeowners and renters struggling to pay their mortgages or rent due to lost income, including $100 billion to provide emergency assistance for low-income renters at risk of eviction.
Democrats' bill would also build upon the one-time direct payments established by the CARES Act, which many households have already received in recent weeks. Individuals making up to $75,000 have been eligible for a maximum of $1,200, with those making up to $99,000 eligible for smaller prorated amounts.
Under Democrats' proposal, there would be a second round of similar direct payments of up to $1,200 per individual, or up to $6,000 per household. As with the previous round of payments, individuals making up to $75,000 and married couples making $150,000 would be eligible for the maximum amount.
Their bill would allow all dependents to be eligible for payments, instead of only children under 17, meaning that college students and adult dependents would qualify.
It also includes a provision to prevent checks and related notices from including the names of the president, Cabinet members or other elected officials, in response to the administration putting President Trump's name on the first round of individual checks and notices informing people of their payments.
The CARES Act further provided an additional $600 a week in unemployment insurance payments, but that benefit is set to expire after July unless Congress extends it. Democrats' bill would extend the additional $600 weekly payments through January.
The legislation also offers multiple ways for Americans to get health insurance if they lose their jobs or weren’t enrolled before the pandemic began.
One option under the bill would be to establish a two-month open enrollment period for people to enroll in coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Open enrollment for those plans ended late last year, and currently people can only sign up for the plans if they have a qualifying life event.
Americans who lose their jobs or get furloughed are currently also eligible for continued coverage through their employer’s health insurance plan under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act,, but it tends to be very expensive without the employer contributions.
A provision in Democrats’ bill would provide full premium subsidies through January to allow workers to maintain their employer-sponsored coverage.
Yet another measure in the legislation — mirroring a proposal from Senate Democrats last month — would allow employers of essential workers like medical personnel, first responders and grocery store clerks to apply for grants so that those workers can receive special hazard pay amounting to an extra $13 per hour.
The bill also includes $915 billion for state, local, territorial and tribal governments, a top priority for Democrats who were unable to secure the funding in an interim relief measure last month. Another $755 million would be allotted for the District of Columbia to assist with financial impacts from the pandemic.
The legislation provides $75 billion for coronavirus testing, contract tracing and other measures to monitor the spread of COVID-19, as well as $100 billion in grants for hospitals and medical providers to reimburse health care related expenses.
It further calls for a comprehensive testing strategy that includes requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to specifically outline levels of necessary testing to effectively control the virus spread and create a public website with information about the types and numbers of tests available.
The bill also provides $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service to help make up for lost revenue due to the pandemic.
Another provision in the bill would restrict Trump's ability to dismiss inspectors general by only allowing them to be removed for specific reasons like neglect of duty, knowingly violating laws, abuse of authority or a felony conviction.
Trump last month removed the inspector general for the intelligence community — who had alerted Congress to the whistleblower complaint that led to the impeachment inquiry about Trump's dealings with Ukraine — as well as the acting inspector general at the Defense Department, who had been named as chairman of a congressionally mandated commission to oversee the coronavirus relief implementation.
House Democrats’ bill would also establish a backup plan for the November elections if it’s still unsafe for voters to cast their ballots in person. It would permanently ensure that all voters can access no-excuse absentee voting by mail and that they would have at least 15 consecutive days to cast their votes early, starting with this year’s federal elections.
Trump and Republicans have expressed opposition to universal voting by mail, making it a tough sell for future negotiations. Trump last month dismissed voting by mail as “corrupt,” even as he acknowledged that he personally had voted by mail in Florida’s primary earlier this year.
The House is also expected to vote Friday on rules changes to allow lawmakers to vote remotely and conduct committee work virtually. House Democrats are planning to vote on permitting proxy voting, which would allow absent lawmakers to authorize colleagues physically present in the Capitol to cast votes on their behalf.
The GOP-controlled Senate reconvened last week, albeit with social distancing measures in place such as allowing senators and witnesses to participate in committee hearings by videoconference.
But for the most part, the House has only come fully into session a day at a time a few times since March to vote on coronavirus relief bills, frustrating lawmakers eager to resume regular committee work and votes on bills without the risks involved in traveling during the pandemic.
A bipartisan task force has been discussing options for the House to operate during the pandemic, but so far no agreement has been reached. Hoyer, a member of the task force, told reporters on Tuesday that Democrats will still move forward with the rules changes even if they can't get Republicans resistant to remote voting on board.
"I've indicated that if we can't reach agreement that we will nevertheless present a path forward to ensure the Congress can do its duties," Hoyer said.