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Sen. Jones: Bill wasn't anywhere close to being good enough
01:23 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

A bipartisan group of House members on Tuesday formally unveiled a sweeping proposal to inject up to $2 trillion in aid to the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, a move aimed at jump-starting talks that have devolved into bitter acrimony and finger-pointing between the White House and Democratic leaders in the heat of this election year.

Introduced by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, the proposal touches on many of the elements under discussion – aid to small businesses and schools, a new round of checks to Americans, more jobless benefits and funding to help with the November elections – while achieving bipartisan consensus on issues that have left the two sides bickering for the past several months, such as money for cash-strapped states and cities.

The effort represents a rare bipartisan breakthrough, given Congress has been locked in a partisan impasse for months after Washington allocated $3 trillion in the spring to help an economy ravaged by the pandemic. But it stands little chance of becoming law and met with stiff resistance from top House Democrats.

Eight House Democratic committee chairs released a statement Tuesday rejecting the proposal, saying it “falls short of what is needed to save lives and boost the economy.”

“When it comes to bolstering the public health system, supporting state and local governments, and assisting struggling families, the Problem Solvers’ proposal leaves too many needs unmet. With the general election just 49 days away and the Postal Service sabotaged by the Trump administration, their proposal also abandons our responsibility to protect the life of our democracy,” the statement said.

Rep. Max Rose, a freshman Democrat from a New York swing district, reacted angrily after top Democrats rejected the proposal.

“You saw all the reasons why people hate politics,” Rose, a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, told CNN. “Because they are rejecting a bold bipartisan measure outright and insinuating things are not in there when they actually are and just continuing to kick the can down the road over and over and over again. … It’s deeply frustrating.”

Asked specifically about his party leadership, Rose said: “It’s a charade. … It’s stupid.”

He pointed to how Republicans in the group got behind funding for state and local governments in the package, a major sticking point, to the tune of $500 billion. “Then the first thing you do is you come out and you say here’s why we reject it outright? No wonder everyone’s so frustrated and they don’t think politicians care. It’s ridiculous, man.”

Rose added: “It made me disappointed to be a Democrat.”

The plan, pushed in part by vulnerable lawmakers in both parties, is a clear recognition that many on Capitol Hill are anxious about Congress’ failure as millions are of out of work and want to ratchet up pressure on congressional leaders to restart talks with the White House.

“People are clearly frustrated,” said one of the members of the 50-person group, which is comprised of rank-and-file lawmakers from both parties, asking for anonymity to discuss the proposal. “A lot of Americans want to see action.”

New Jersey Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a co-chairman of the caucus, described the effort during a news conference Tuesday morning as a way to “break the gridlock and find common ground” and a “bipartisan road map.”

But with a dwindling number of legislative days left this year, passing such a measure through both chambers of Congress remains doubtful at best. GOP and Democratic leaders remain badly divided over the details and scope of a new round of relief, with Senate Republicans pushing a $500 billion proposal and Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling for at least $2.2 trillion.

The plan is intended to serve as a short-term measure to shore up programs and provide new funding through the January presidential inauguration. And the group wants the plan to serve as an outline to push the leadership and the White House back to the negotiating table.

The measure calls for spending $1.523 trillion in new money, but the price tag could increase roughly $400 billion in February and March depending on how the country is doing in its fight against the pandemic. And if the US is seeing a decline in Covid-19 hospitalizations and making progress towards a vaccine, the price tag could drop roughly $200 billion.

The package would direct $100 billion to health care programs, including $25 billion for coronavirus testing and contact tracing. It would provide $500 billion for state and local governments – to help pay for lost revenue caused by the pandemic and costs associated with outbreak response. It would provide an additional $145 billion for schools and childcare, $15 billion for the US Postal Service, and $290 billion for small businesses, including another round for the popular Paycheck Protection Program. It would also include $400 million to help states bolster the November elections.

The measure also incorporates another round of $1,200 direct payments to individuals under a certain income threshold, with an additional $500 per child, while extending the federal eviction moratorium and providing rental assistance up to $25 billion.

Under the plan, unemployed workers could be eligible for federal jobless benefits for eight weeks at $450 per week. The unemployment benefits would transition up to $600 per week, similar to the level that expired in July, but it would cap the amount to ensure people aren’t being paid more than their lost income.

While the plan has elements both parties could support, it is far more generous than what many Republicans want – particularly over state and local aid and for jobless benefits – and is short of what’s been demanded by Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, who have sought $3.6 billion for election security measures, $430 billion for schools and a continuation of jobless benefits at $600 a week, among other matters.

Members of the bipartisan group said they have kept both the White House and Democratic leaders apprised of their efforts, and they say they have not been discouraged from putting together their proposal. The group has spoken by phone with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows amid the stalemate in the talks at the leadership level.

Still, for the bill to become law, it would need backing from top congressional leaders in both parties and President Donald Trump – something many believe remains highly doubtful given the rhetoric on both sides.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that she wants the House to remain in session until congressional leaders can reach a coronavirus stimulus deal – news that Gottheimer welcomed at Tuesday’s press conference.

“We heard some good news this morning that we’re going to stay here until we get something done,” he said, adding, “None of us want to go anywhere until we can help the American people.”

But during a private conference call with House Democrats on Tuesday morning, Pelosi remained firm in the negotiating position she’s held up to this point: that scaling back the party’s position on stimulus talks is a non-starter.

Pelosi also dismissed the effort by the bipartisan group of rank-and-file lawmakers to craft their own stimulus package, saying it does not go far enough. At one point, she appeared to refer to it as a “Republican bill,” according to two members on the call.

Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican who is also a co-chairman of the caucus, acknowledged that leadership will be in charge of negotiating any final package saying, “we do not step into the roles of being the final negotiators in this package. That is left to our leadership, that is left to the Senate, the House, and the White House, but what we wanted to demonstrate is that it can be done.”

He added, however, “I hope that those stakeholders that represent us in our leadership positions follow the lead of these members and say you know what it’s time to put the American people first and get the job done because they are suffering still from the COVID-19 situation.”

Last week, Senate GOP leaders brought forward a $500 billion stimulus bill, in a move to get their conference on the same page. Senate Democrats blocked the measure from being brought to the floor.

Democratic leaders continue to call for a larger bill in the $2 trillion range — a price tag many Republicans are unwilling to consider. Pelosi and Schumer defended their approach on a call with House Democrats after the Senate vote last Thursday. Pelosi made the case that Democrats sent a message to Republicans with the vote that they will “stick together,” which could force Republicans back to the negotiating table.

Pelosi also urged her caucus not to be a “cheap date,” according to a source on the call.

On Monday, the speaker said any stimulus deal has to include sufficient funds to “crush the virus.”

After negotiations broke down in August, Trump moved on several executive actions to attempt to alleviate the economic fallout of the pandemic. But administration officials maintain that more aid is needed from Congress.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on CNBC on Monday that Trump is “always considering” additional executive orders, “but there are limitations, and that’s why it’s very important that we have stimulus that helps areas of the economy that need support.”

“I think there is a compromise if the speaker is willing to move forward,” said Mnuchin, who has represented the President in talks for a stimulus agreement.

“I’ve told the speaker I’m available anytime to negotiate, no conditions,” he added. He said he looks forward to seeing the proposal from the Problem Solvers Caucus.

Members of the group say they hope their plan can spur action.

“This is analogous to a test balloon,” one of the lawmakers involved told CNN, adding they believe it will be received “warmly” by many House members.

This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.

CNN’s Clare Foran, Haley Byrd, Phil Mattingly and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.