Senate Republicans see putting pressure on Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as the key to getting a deal on a coronavirus relief bill before the election and are counting on vulnerable House Democrats to move the House Speaker off her demand for a package costing more than $2 trillion.
GOP lawmakers say last week’s procedural vote to advance a $500 billion to $700 billion relief plan — which all but one Republican senator supported and all Democrats opposed — was designed to give political cover to their vulnerable incumbents and put House Democrats on the defensive.
A Republican senator familiar with party strategy said the focus of last week’s vote was Pelosi, much more than Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who doesn’t have to worry much about protecting vulnerable colleagues.
“The question is does this force Pelosi to listen to her 20 members in districts where the Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the Democrat,” said the lawmaker.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce circulated a memo earlier this month stating its intention to endorse 23 first-term House Democrats.
“Schumer’s not pressured at all. This is all on Pelosi. Pelosi’s running the show,” the senator added, noting that 117 House Democrats signed a letter to Pelosi last month asking her to take up the Worker Relief and Security Act.
The bill would extend $600-a-week federal unemployment assistance for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic and adjust the weekly federal unemployment compensation amount and available benefit weeks on state unemployment rates.
“If she gets more and more pressure from those folks, she may then be forced to meet with Mnuchin,” the GOP senator said.
Republican leaders think if moderate House Democrats stew a little longer, Pelosi will be more willing to cut a deal.
Pelosi on Friday afternoon said she remains optimistic about getting a deal, despite growing skepticism among other lawmakers.
“I’m completely optimistic,” she insisted in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “I’m optimistic. I do think we should have an agreement, that’s what we all want.”
But she reiterated she would oppose one of President Trump’s top priorities, $1,200 rebate checks to Americans earning up to $75,000, unless food assistance and eviction protection are part of the deal.
Trump has joined the pressure campaign. On Friday, he accused Pelosi of holding up the stimulus deal in order to “bail out” blue states.
“Pelosi and Schumer want Trillions of Dollars of BAILOUT money for Blue States that are doing badly, both economically and in terms of high crime, as a condition to making a deal on stimulus – But the USA is coming back strong!” he tweeted.
Pelosi quickly dismissed the salvo as “pathetic.”
In recent weeks, when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has reached out to Democratic leaders in an effort to resume negotiations, it’s been Pelosi who has responded.
Pelosi has told Mnuchin, the lead White House negotiator, several times that the White House must be willing to accept a package of more than $2 trillion for Democrats to negotiate further.
“We said we would be willing to go down to $2.2 trillion,” she said earlier this month.
On Thursday she said she thought that Mnuchin would agree to spend considerably more than the $1.1 trillion spending limit that he and Senate Republicans agreed to in July.
Mnuchin floated $1.5 trillion as a possible number at a House hearing earlier this month.
Senate Republican aides have focused their talking points on Pelosi, highlighting the comments of moderate Democrats who express growing anxiety over the lack of a deal.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office on Friday circulated a report of a conference call Pelosi and Schumer held Thursday in an effort to sooth the anxieties of House Democrats who are impatient to get a deal.
Pelosi on Thursday pushed back against the notion that 52 Senate Republicans voting for a pared-down coronavirus relief bill puts more pressure on her. The legislation failed to advance because it fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster.
She said the Republican bill fell far short of what the nation needs to recover from the pandemic.
“I think that McConnell is being his cynical self by saying, ‘I’ll just put something on there. It’ll look like we’re trying to do something, while we ignore the needs of the American people,’” she said.
She dismissed the vote as a merely a tactic to “check the box” with voters.
Republicans see Schumer as less susceptible to pressure because Senate Democrats only have to defend 12 seats in November, and none of those incumbents are in toss-up races.
The two most endangered Senate Democrats are Sens. Doug Jones (Ala.) and Gary Peters (Mich.). Jones is already trailing badly in the polls while Peters is viewed as a favorite to win in what the non-partisan Cook Political Report rates as a “lean Democrat” race.
Despite the pressure campaign on Pelosi, Republican leaders are uncertain it will work, given the personal animosity between Trump and the Speaker.
Trump routinely disparages Pelosi as “crazy” while Pelosi has called the president “immoral, unethical, corrupt and unpatriotic” and spearheaded his impeachment in the House last year.
Pelosi on Friday said she doesn’t speak directly with Trump “because I find no reason to.”
“There’s no, shall we say, validity to whatever he says,” she said.
McConnell on Friday conceded he is growing pessimistic about a breakthrough.
“I wish I could tell you we were going to get another package but it doesn’t look that good right now,” he told constituents in Kentucky.
Adding to the sense of pessimism on Capitol Hill is the memory of the 35-day government shutdown at the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019. Relations between Trump and Pelosi were so sour during the impasse that a special bipartisan committee of Senate and House members had to step in to negotiate a solution.
Some lawmakers, however, think the failed Senate Republican bill clears the way for a new round of talks.
“This is the McConnell script that we’ve seen several times before — a take-it-or-leave-it bill on the Republican side, claiming bipartisanship that goes down. That’s usually when negotiations begin,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.).