Next Steps on Coronavirus Stimulus Divide Both Parties

Internal divisions among Republicans and Democrats are complicating efforts over a new coronavirus aid package.

Photo: Erin Scott/Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON—Lawmakers from both parties are growing increasingly worried by the stalemate over a coronavirus aid package, but internal divisions on each side are complicating their efforts to propose new measures.

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) was facing pressure from an assortment of Democrats to consider alternatives to her approach of pushing Republicans to accept a deal similar in content to a package that the House passed in May. A group of more than 100 Democrats wrote to her seeking a vote on a measure focused on extending a federal unemployment supplement during the pandemic, and Democrats from districts that President Trump won were showing jitters.

“We cannot keep saying take it or leave it because we know very well at this point the Senate has left it,” said Rep. Cindy Axne (D., Iowa). “I’m calling on Speaker Pelosi to bring up a revised federal aid package when the House is in later this week to continue our efforts to secure a deal that will help the millions of Americans still in need.”

In the Senate, some Republicans are hoping to vote on a cheaper, pared-down version of the aid bill they unveiled last month, although some GOP aides said they saw early signs that it wouldn’t be able to muster a Senate majority. The new proposal, referred to as the skinny bill, is expected to cost about half of the earlier $1 trillion legislation, in an effort to appease GOP senators worried about the price tag of the federal government’s efforts in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The new proposal is expected to include $300 in weekly federal unemployment insurance through Dec. 27, establish legal protections for businesses and health-care facilities, provide $29 billion in health-care funding and $105 billion for schools and permit the U.S. Postal Service to not repay a $10 billion loan set up in a previous aid package.

But Republican leaders are first assessing whether there will be enough GOP support to vote on the legislation, which is intended to demonstrate more GOP unity than the previous proposal and strengthen their hand in any coming negotiations. Senate Democrats are expected to oppose the measure as insufficient to meet the health and economic needs sparked by the pandemic.

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“There’s not much of a reason to put a bill together and vote for it unless there’s majority support for it, which means almost all of the Republicans,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.). “There’s some eagerness on our part that we could lay down a bill that got people back to school, back to work, back to child care. If 50 or more Republicans were for that, that would establish a helpful part of the discussions.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) previously estimated that roughly 20 Senate Republicans opposed the earlier, $1 trillion package and might not be amenable to any additional funding. Mr. McConnell told lawmakers on a call Tuesday he didn’t plan to hold a vote on the skinny bill next week to avoid any overlap with the GOP convention, which Republicans want to occupy center stage next week.

“I’m hoping that we actually can get back together and, in spite of the proximity of the election, put it aside and reach an agreement sometime soon,” Mr. McConnell said in Kentucky on Tuesday.

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Voting on a new proposal would give the most vulnerable Senate Republicans up for re-election in November an action to highlight to voters, but it appears unlikely to break the gridlock that stymied recent negotiations among congressional Democrats and the White House.

Talks between Mrs. Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows collapsed earlier this month. Last week, the Democratic leaders said they would return to talks only if Republicans agreed to spend significantly more than $1 trillion. During the negotiations, Democrats had proposed shaving $1 trillion off their own $3.5 trillion bill that passed the House in May if Republicans would add a similar amount to theirs. Mr. Mnuchin said last week that Republicans were seeking to approve a bill that costs roughly $1 trillion.

White House officials are pressing to do a narrower aid package but have sounded pessimistic about its chances. Democratic leaders have rebuffed that idea and now are contending with some unrest from rank-and-file lawmakers.

“I think the outlook for a skinny deal is better than it’s ever been and yet we’re still not there,” Mr. Meadows told reporters Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Pelosi faces pressure from Democrats who want to display their support for extending federal unemployment benefits at or near the $600 weekly level that expired July 31. With no congressional agreement, President Trump signed an executive action earlier this month directing the federal government to provide $300 a week in additional payments to the unemployed.

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On Tuesday, a group of centrist Democrats were circulating a letter to Mrs. Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) urging them to hold a vote Saturday on legislation to extend federal jobless benefits. The chamber is already scheduled to convene Saturday to vote on a bill that would prohibit operational changes to the Postal Service until well after the election and give $25 billion in additional funding to the agency.

A senior Democratic aide said there wasn’t currently a consensus among House Democrats around what kind of additional coronavirus aid should be voted on, and leaders hope to keep the focus Saturday on the Postal Service. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said Tuesday the Postal Service is suspending operational changes, such as removal of mail-processing equipment and collection boxes, until after the November election.

Mrs. Pelosi spoke to Mr . DeJoy on Wednesday morning “and conveyed to him that his announcement is not a solution and is misleading,” she said in a statement. “The Postmaster General’s alleged pause is wholly insufficient and does not reverse damage already wreaked.”

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“This pause only halts a limited number of the Postmaster’s changes, does not reverse damage already done, and alone is not enough to ensure voters will not be disenfranchised by the President this fall,” Mrs. Pelosi said. The House bill would also prohibit the agency from implementing any changes to operations or service levels it had in place on Jan.1 until the end of the Covid-19 emergency or Jan. 1, 2021, whichever comes later.

Mr. Meadows said Mrs. Pelosi’s willingness to address just the Postal Service was “the first indication we have that she’ll do a skinny bill because obviously postal was part of the negotiations. If she’s willing to do that, let’s add in the things we agree upon.”

If Congress and the White House can’t reach an agreement over a new stimulus package this summer, the negotiations could be combined with discussions over a spending bill that will be needed after the government’s funding runs out at the end of September.

Write to Kristina Peterson at [email protected] and Siobhan Hughes at [email protected]

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