House Democratic freshmen facing difficult reelection bids are anxious about the failure of Congress to reach an economic stimulus deal with the White House, worried that the logjam could have a devastating impact in their districts just as voters head to the polls in this critical election year.
The members are calling for bipartisan talks to resume and want the Trump administration and their own party leaders to offer more in the way of compromise in order to get a deal that could reach President Donald Trump’s desk.
“I share the concerns that I’m hearing from my constituents: I’m pissed. I’m angry,” said Rep. Max Rose, a freshman Democrat from a New York district Trump carried in 2016. “At this point, it’s a middle finger to the American people.”
The concerns were echoed by a number of freshmen House Democrats after talks collapsed on Friday as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer traded blame with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows – and each side accused the other of refusing to compromise. In the Senate, a number of Republicans in difficult reelection races also are fearing backlash from the gridlocked talks, worried about failing to meet the demands to provide more aid to the hardest-hit Americans and to schools struggling with plans to reopen in the fall.
In the House, Democrats have been largely supportive of Pelosi’s hardline approach to the talks – and very few are critical of her handling of the negotiations so far, casting blame mainly at the White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But many Democrats put faith in the belief that their leaders would be able to cut a deal with the White House as they have in the previous four relief packages this year – and are growing increasingly nervous that Congress will come up empty just as voters are out of work, short of jobless benefits and facing eviction while concerns grow about food supply shortages.
“The freshmen are really stressed,” said one Democratic member, asking for anonymity to speak candidly about private conversations. “People are scared out there,” the lawmaker said, referring to their constituents.
Indeed, those concerns are being voiced in part by the 30 Democrats in districts that Trump carried in 2016. And in interviews with CNN, a number of those Democrats ratcheted up their calls for a deal and urged negotiations to resume. Some privately say they want their party’s leadership to advance a scaled-back bill if talks continue to stall, something that Pelosi has resisted over concerns that such a plan will far short of what’s needed.
“As it stands now, we’ve already failed,” Rep. Ben McAdams, a freshman Democrat from Utah, told CNN this week. “I am frustrated we don’t have an agreement we can vote on already.”
Another freshman, Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, said he joined a group of rank-and-file members in both parties over the weekend to discuss if they can find consensus where their leadership and the Trump administration haven’t so far. Those talks among rank-and-file members in both parties, he said, will continue.
“To me, no bill is not an option,” Phillips said in a phone interview. “And that’s not unique to this voice. I would argue that most members feel the same. The need is too great, the time too short and the risk of not doing so too severe.”
Amid the anxiety within the ranks, Pelosi held a two-hour conference call with her caucus on Saturday to lay out what happened in the negotiations, where she offered to come down $1 trillion from her original $3.4 trillion price tag and called on the administration to add another trillion dollars to the GOP’s $1 trillion plan. Pelosi has told her members that negotiating with the White House had proven difficult, questioning whether the Trump administration even wanted a deal at all.
The White House refused to agree to a $2 trillion price tag, criticizing Pelosi’s offer and calling on her to pare back Democrats’ demands for $1 trillion for state and local governments and jobless benefits at $600 a week.
“Democrats have compromised in these negotiations,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said. “We offered to come down $1 trillion if the White House would come up $1 trillion. We welcome the White House back to the negotiating table, but they must meet us halfway.”
But for members back in their districts campaigning and meeting with constituents, there is a growing sense that something – even if it falls far short of the House’s $3.4 trillion HEROES Act – would go a long way to boost the economy and help them in their reelections in the process. Some Democrats privately raised concerns last week after reports surfaced that the White House had offered $400 a week in unemployment insurance and the Democratic leaders had turned it down.
In May, 14 Democrats voted against the House Democrats’ HEROES Act. And some of those members are the same ones urging Democratic leaders to come to an agreement with the White House now.
“I think the HEROES act went too far. It got loaded up with a bunch of political wish list things,” said McAdams, who voted against the Democratic plan, which would have amounted to the largest rescue package in US history. “We have to meet in the middle. We owe it to the American people to meet in the middle.”
But Michigan Rep. Haley Stevens, a freshman Democrat who ultimately voted for the House’s relief bill despite her private reservations about the plan, is hearing concerns from her own constituents and is eager for another round of relief.
“Schools and municipalities in my district still need support from their federal government, so I am hoping that a bipartisan deal can come together soon,” said Stevens, whose district Trump carried by just over 17,000 votes four years ago.
With negotiations stalled, the timeline is now looking like it could slip until September when Congress has to pass a funding bill to keep the government open by October 1. Waiting another six-to-eight weeks for a stimulus bill, however, isn’t sitting well with some Democrats in difficult races.
“We all have a responsibility to get this done,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a freshman Democrat from New Jersey whose district Republicans are targeting in November. “This is not one of those issues that if we don’t get it done … we can argue about it during the election. A lot of people aren’t going to be alive if we don’t get this right now.”
While Malinowski said that it’s common for rank-and-file members to get nervous when negotiations are drawn out, he acknowledged that there could be a political cost if a deal isn’t struck.
“I expect to be held accountable to what Congress does and doesn’t do. That comes with the territory,” Malinowski said.
Malinowski didn’t fault Pelosi’s handling of the talks – nor did several other freshmen members.
“I am not in a position to know (right now) whether a particular negotiating position is the right one. People who are not in the room get nervous because it is taking a while, and that is always the case in a negotiation,” Malinowski said.
“I don’t think the speaker is taking too hard a line,” Phillips said, calling for leaders to see if they could rely on bipartisan groups like the so-called Problem Solvers Caucus to find a way out of the impasse. “We’re terribly disappointed in the breakdown and yet not surprised.”
Rose, the New York Democrat who backed the House Democrats’ relief bill in May, faulted both sides in their handling of the talks so far.
“Nobody has handled this well,” Rose said when asked about Pelosi. But he also contended that the President’s advisers “are moving the goal posts” and argued that Trump would take a deal if he negotiated directly with Democrats and didn’t rely on his Treasury secretary and chief of staff to do the talking.
“My suggestion is kick out the advisers … lock yourselves in a room and don’t leave the room until there’s a deal suitable to the American people,” Rose said. “And if people didn’t vote for you, get the f— out of the room.”