Democrats want $3.4T as 'starting point' in new COVID-19 relief talks

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday morning said the $3.4 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act passed by House Democrats in May should be the “starting point” for negotiations with Senate Republicans and the White House on a new round of coronavirus relief legislation.

The Democratic leaders appeared to step back from their pre-election offer to White House negotiators to slim down the total size of the package to $2.2 trillion.

Even though Democrats lost seats in the House and face long odds of retaking the Senate majority, Schumer and Pelosi said President-elect Joe Biden’s victory is what counts.

“The HEROES Act should be the starting point, not an emaciated bill that prioritizes protections for corporations and considers the needs of American families as an afterthought,” Schumer told reporters at a joint press conference with Pelosi.

“The HEROES Act, passed in the House, does meet this moment. It doesn’t pick and choose who we’re going to help during the greatest health and economic crisis in decades,” he argued.

Asked if Democratic leaders had changed their position at all on the next coronavirus relief package, Pelosi said passing the HEROES Act has always been their goal.

“It has been our position all along to crush the virus, honor our heroes, put money in the pockets of the American people,” she said.

Pelosi said Democrats received a mandate for their go-big approach on Election Day.

“What Joe Biden got in this election was a mandate, a mandate to address the challenges that our country faces as well as to have a positive initiative on how to grow the economy in a fair way and in order to do that we must address the pandemic,” she said.

The House passed the $3.4 trillion relief package in May and then passed a smaller $2.2 trillion relief package in October.

Shortly before the election, Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were talking about a potential deal between $1.8 trillion and $2.2 trillion.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday morning said a COVID-19 relief package in the ballpark of $500 billion would be more appropriate.

"My view is the level at which the economy is improving further underscores that we need to do something about the amount that we put on the floor in September and October — highly targeted at what the residual problems are," the GOP leader told reporters.

Schumer pointed to the recent surge in infections and hospitalizations across the country in arguing that it's “even more important and vital” to include the “health care provisions” of the HEROES Act in any final package.

Schumer also hit McConnell for “sticking to his emaciated bill” and pushed back on the GOP leader’s argument that the emergence of a vaccine undercuts the need for a relief package exceeding $1 trillion or $2 trillion.

He called McConnell’s call for a targeted relief bill a “non-starter.”

Schumer said the vaccine creates a "greater need for a bill because it has to be distributed fairly and equitably” and argued Democrats have a political mandate from the election to go big on the next round of relief legislation.

“The biggest change since Election Day is that Donald Trump, who is not for helping us in COVID and who is against the HEROES bill, has lost,” Schumer said. “So yes, we think there has been a change. It should move things in our direction.”

He went on to call the election “more a referendum on who can handle COVID well than anything else.”

“The Donald Trump approach was repudiated, the Joe Biden approach was embraced,” Schumer said.

Republicans counter that they themselves have a mandate after Democrats lost seats in the House and underperformed expectations of winning Senate seats in Maine and North Carolina.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said last week that Pelosi has to give ground in the relief talks.

"And the vast majority of her members also think she has to give some ground here. The liberal agenda was rejected by voters. There was no mandate in this election," he said.

Pelosi declined after Thursday's press conference to say whether she has talked to the White House recently about restarting the relief talks.

McConnell on Thursday said Schumer and Pelosi "are looking at something dramatically larger" on coronavirus relief.

"That's not a place I think we're willing to go. But I do think there needs to be another package. Hopefully we can get past the impasse we've had now for four or five months and get serious about doing something that's appropriate," he said.

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