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‘Let’s put politics aside and get it done’: Northwest lawmakers weigh in on stalled COVID-19 relief talks

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 22, 2020

FILE - In this May 22, 2020, file photo the Dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is visible through heavy fog in Washington. New virus relief will have to wait until after the November election. Congress is past the point at which it can deliver more coronavirus aid soon, with differences between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Republicans and President Donald Trump proving insurmountable.  (Andrew Harnik)
FILE - In this May 22, 2020, file photo the Dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is visible through heavy fog in Washington. New virus relief will have to wait until after the November election. Congress is past the point at which it can deliver more coronavirus aid soon, with differences between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Republicans and President Donald Trump proving insurmountable. (Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – After negotiators missed another deadline for negotiating a COVID-19 relief bill this week, all but confirming no deal will get done before Election Day, Democratic and Republican lawmakers from the Northwest on Thursday expressed mutual frustration and a growing sense of urgency as the pandemic drags on.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had identified Tuesday as the deadline to reach a compromise with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the White House’s lead negotiator, in order for Congress to have time to pass a spending package. The Democratic-controlled House and Republican-led Senate have introduced competing legislation over the past several months while Pelosi and Mnuchin have, ostensibly, inched toward a deal.

“It’s obviously moving very slowly,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane. “The administration and Secretary Mnuchin have been pretty persistent. They’ve moved a long way in wanting a deal, recognizing that small business and individuals, health care providers, schools, are in a dire situation, that we have tremendous need.”

With Election Day approaching, neither party has wanted to be seen as giving in. Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California told his caucus in a conference call Thursday afternoon that talks had broken down and they shouldn’t expect an accord before Nov. 3.

“I think that no matter what happens on Election Day, there’s bound to be some change in the attitude,” Fulcher said. “Right now, whether we like it or not, there’s politics being played, and I would have to say probably on all sides … and that’s highly likely to continue for another 12 days.”

After Congress passed three emergency spending bills in March worth nearly $3 trillion combined, pandemic relief has become decidedly more partisan. House Democrats passed another $3 trillion package in May, staking out a broad range of spending measures they insist must be in any compromise legislation, while Senate Republicans struggled to unify their own caucus behind a $1 trillion bill in July.

Since then, GOP leaders in the Senate have proposed narrower bills that Democrats have shot down, fearing that a piecemeal approach would mean passing only what Republicans want and nothing more.

“Obviously, the situation’s gotten worse and it’s more urgent that we get some help out there,” Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said. “Having said that, the parties are not in agreement as to the extent of that. We have a very different view than the Democrats do, both from an amount standpoint and also from a targeted standpoint.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., rebuked Senate Republicans in a statement for backing only pared-down spending bills.

“Frontline workers who are keeping our families safe and communities running while we fight this virus, families struggling to keep food on the table and roofs over their heads, restaurant owners trying to make ends meet right now, not at the end of the quarter – those are only some of the people Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans are just fine leaving out in the cold in the middle of this pandemic,” Murray said, “and I will not accept that.”

“In Spokane, Pullman, Walla Walla, and all across our state and country,” the statement continues, “the only way we are going to save lives and get a hold of this virus is by getting serious about our federal relief efforts, and right now Republican Leader McConnell is the main person standing in the way.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are tiring of what they see as Democratic intransigence.

“I think that’s just a political way of saying, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’” Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said, “and that’s essentially how the negotiations have gone so far.”

Crapo said he supports another relief bill but favors a narrower, more “targeted” spending package, pointing to funds Congress doled out in March that have not yet been exhausted. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has called these GOP proposals “emaciated” and insisted that they fail to meet the needs of Americans.

Democrats, however, are favored by oddsmakers to win control of the Senate, and Risch suggested those projections have figured into his party’s negotiating strategy.

“We’ve argued, ‘If we’re all in agreement on this, why don’t we pass this?’ ” he said. “And then after you take over in January, assuming you do, you can pass the rest of what you want.”

“If they were negotiating in good faith,” Risch said, “they would jump at the chance to all get together and pass what we all agree on and then revisit it later if they want to add something to it, but you can’t get more by saying ‘no’ to stuff you agree with.”

Days after House Democrats passed a revised, $2.2 trillion bill Oct. 1, President Donald Trump abruptly called off negotiations. The president later reversed course, and Tuesday said on Fox News he wanted to do a deal “even bigger than the Democrats.”

“I think he’s sending the signal that he’s serious about a package and that he really believes it’s important that we act soon, that there’s urgency,” McMorris Rodgers said. “Let’s put politics aside and get it done.”

In the House, there may be growing support for doing just that. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican who represents southwest Washington, introduced a motion in September that would circumvent Pelosi to force a vote on a stand-alone bill to extend the Paycheck Protection Program, a business lending program that expired in August and is widely supported by both parties.

“There are a majority of people in both parties who are working hard to try and get things done,” Herrera Beutler said. “The leadership right now are all playing the national political game, and I hate it.”

Herrera Beutler’s motion, called a discharge petition, requires a majority of the House. Fulcher said some Democrats have verbally expressed support for the move, but Pelosi has kept her caucus in line and the petition has so far failed to advance.

McMorris Rodgers conceded that passing a bipartisan bill before Nov. 3 would amount to a legislative magic trick, but expressed optimism that Congress will get it done after Election Day.

“It would be pulling the rabbit out of the hat to do something before the election,” she said, “but I don’t think that suggests that there’s not a desire to get a fourth COVID relief package. I believe that, no matter how the election goes, there will be another package because the need is so great.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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