Democrats Propose More Aid to States : Politics Podcast : The NPR Politics Podcast House Democrats plan to move forward with a $3 trillion bill for additional coronavirus relief, following up on the historic $2 trillion aid package passed in March. It prioritizes granting hazard pay to front-line workers and providing aid to state and local governments, which had not been allotted in previous bills. It is seen as an opening salvo in a long series of negotiations on the next relief package.

This episode: campaign correspondent Asma Khalid, congressional editor Deirdre Walsh, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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House Democrats Push For Money For States In New Relief Bill

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CHRIS: Hey. This is Chris (ph), an out-of-work pianist in Nashville, Tenn. I'm getting lots of practicing done. This podcast was recorded at

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

1:52 p.m. on Wednesday, May 13.

CHRIS: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: That sounds relaxing.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: One of the best things about quarantining is listening to all these fabulous musicians who post on social media.

KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh, congressional editor.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: House Democrats have released a draft bill of a new coronavirus relief package, and a current price tag is coming in at more than three trillion dollars. You know, the pandemic relief packages that have passed so far in this crisis have all been the result, it seems, of long bipartisan negotiations between the House and Senate and the White House. But, Mara, it doesn't seem like this is going to be that same thing.

LIASSON: Well, if Congress is going to pass another relief package, it's going to be the result of a long, bipartisan negotiation. It's just that, what the House is doing now is laying down a marker of what they think should be in the next package. The difference is that for the first couple of packages there was a tremendous sense of urgency, and it was a bipartisan sense of urgency that something big had to be done right away. That's what's missing now. House Democrats feel something big needs to be done again right away. House Republicans want to wait and see how the economy opens up or doesn't. So they're not even on the same page in terms of urgency, but this is the House wish list, what they want to be in the next package when the next package gets negotiated.

WALSH: Right. And I just think the size of the package is something that we should just take a beat on. I mean, this is more than the last four bipartisan measures that the House and Senate have passed just in the last two months. And, I mean, in Congress speed, that's light speed. I mean, they don't tend to pass trillion-dollar packages in a matter of several weeks. So we - while we were in this period of responding to this massive crisis, and people were coming together, we're now not in that period. And like Mara said, we're now back to the sort of partisan corners.

KHALID: I want to be clear. I mean, it feels I think too many of us sort of just looking at a lot of these economic indicators that we are still in a moment of economic urgency. But what you both are describing is a situation where, like, the urgency that brought on the swift action before is just not where we are at right now. Is that what you're saying? Like, there's not an agreement about how urgent the situation is.

LIASSON: Well, Republicans aren't feeling that sense of urgency, but Democrats are. They're saying millions of people are out of work. Millions of people are going broke. Millions of people still need help, and they're getting some backup from a pretty powerful voice, the Federal Reserve chairman, Jay Powell.

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JEROME POWELL: Additional fiscal support could be costly but worth it if it helps avoid long-term damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery. This tradeoff is one for our elected representatives who wield powers of taxation and spending.

LIASSON: He says, you know, Congress needs to act. That's what the Democrats are saying. And the question is, are the Republicans going to come around to feeling that or not? Republicans are saying it's premature.

WALSH: I mean, I think Democrats are banking on public pressure on Congress forcing Republicans to get back to the negotiating table. I think they - I think another thing you're sort of seeing is the urban-rural divide that we see around the country with different governors in Congress. Because the Democrats represent a lot of these areas, urban areas, where we see these sort of clusters of coronavirus outbreaks that are really, you know, collapsing their local economies and putting massive pressures on their state and local budgets, which is why there's so much pressure on them to respond with aid. A lot - most of the Republicans in Congress, you know, represent areas that haven't been as hard hit or are just not coming as swift where maybe cases are ramping up, but they haven't felt that sort of acute pressure that a lot of the Democrats have.

LIASSON: But that does highlight the difference between House Republicans who do have to run in these districts, whereas Deirdre said, they might not be feeling as much pressure because the economy hasn't collapsed as drastically. And President Trump who has to win swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania - and those states are being really hard hit. He can't just win by winning a bunch of House Republican districts.

KHALID: So I want to talk about what's actually in this legislation because it's three trillion dollars. I mean, what amongst those three trillion dollars, Deirdre, is really the Democratic priorities?

WALSH: Well as you said, it's a massive bill. It's 1,815 pages, and they're going to vote on it on Friday. I think the high ticket item is the roughly trillion dollars in a direct aid to states, local governments, territories, and the District of Columbia is getting some of that money. There's another round of direct cash payments. There is couple hundred billion dollars in hazard pay, sort of premium pay, for essential frontline workers. There's a significant aid for mortgage and rent relief for people who are feeling the struggle to pay their monthly bills. There's $75 billion for contact tracing.

LIASSON: Have the Republicans said what they would want in another bill if there was one?

WALSH: What Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has focused on in the last week or so is a push for liability protections for businesses, nonprofits, as they work to reopen. He's saying that the economy can't kick back into gear if people are worried about lawsuits.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: This is not a time for aspirational legislation. This is a time for practical response to the coronavirus pandemic. And so we're going to insist on doing narrowly targeted legislation if and when we do legislate again, and we may well, that addresses the problems.

WALSH: What McConnell's position has been in the last few days is, I want to take a pause and see how effective the money going out the door is and what the needs are. Once we assess what the urgent needs are, he's open to getting back to the table and putting together a bipartisan package. As long as what he says is the red line, it must include liability protections for businesses.

LIASSON: I mean, what is their bottom-line objection to this? Is it the amount of spending and the increase in the deficit, or is it just that it includes too many things that are on the Democratic wish list?

WALSH: I think, Mara, it's the latter. I think that you're right. No one's really been making any noises about the deficit. But once these relief packages started to veer into policies that Republicans haven't traditionally supported, they started to draw the line and raise the red flag about the impact on the deficit.

LIASSON: But they kind of opened the barn door by voting unanimously for those things and saying, hey, we need those things so people don't go to work and get other people sick. They kind of agreed with Democrats, at least temporarily.

WALSH: They did. I mean, it was a remarkable moment that those things that they have been working against for years just sort of flew by in these packages at such high numbers so quickly.

KHALID: All right then. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk more about where this bill goes next.

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KHALID: And we're back. And, Mara, we were talking a little bit about the messaging - right? - and why Republicans may not want to be signing on to this latest piece of legislation. And the point there is that this crisis has also presented an opportunity for Democrats in some ways to advocate for policies that they see as patching this inadequate social safety net. And it seems kind of like a messaging opportunity, especially as we're moving closer towards the November elections.

LIASSON: It's absolutely a messaging opportunity. It's not unlike how Republicans would over and over and over again pass bills saying they wanted to get rid of Obamacare, knowing that it would go nowhere in the Senate. But yes, it's a messaging opportunity because this election is going to be about two things. One is a referendum on the president's leadership during the pandemic. And the other one is which candidate, which party has the better vision for how to repair a devastated economy. And this is the Democrats' marker. These are things that they've always wanted - health care that doesn't disappear when you lose your job, some kind of income floor. Now they're able to say, you know what, we don't want these things just because we think they're good things to give people. These are things that are necessary to keep the economy going.

WALSH: And I think you're going to see Democrats weaponize a lot of those issues, you know, against Republicans in the elections in November. You know, we expect that this House bill will probably pass pretty much along party lines. And Democrats can say, look, we wanted to cover your health care costs when you lost your jobs. Republicans voted against it.

KHALID: But where exactly does President Trump fit into all of this? Because, you know, Mara, as you say, it is critical for him to win in certain swing states for - these states that maybe need some of these social safety net programs more. So I'm thinking of like a Michigan, a Pennsylvania. And we're just six months out from a general election. So what type of pressure is he putting on Republicans to act?

LIASSON: Well, President Trump has said he's open to another bill. He has said he wants some things in the bill that, as Deirdre just explained, Republicans aren't even onboard with like a payroll tax cut. But I think the question for the president is, does he think that he can just provide help by executive order to Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, or is he going to have to get onboard with some big bipartisan bill to provide big, you know, hundreds of billions of dollars of support that are going to help those states? That's the big question for him. And I think a lot of it depends on how fast the economy opens up. Don't forget - that's what he's banking on. He's calling this transition to greatness. You know, he thinks if you can just lift the official lockdown orders, people will come back to work and go back and out and spend money. And we don't know if that's going to happen yet. Even if the official lockdown orders are lifted, if people don't have confidence, they're not going to...

KHALID: I mean, we've already begun to see though, Mara, it's not working exactly.

LIASSON: Yeah.

KHALID: Right? Like, I mean, I'm in a state right now that's partially lifted, and I wouldn't say people are, like, rushing out to go back to live life as normal yet.

LIASSON: Right. This is a big question for the president. How much fiscal stimulus does he think Washington needs to provide to get the kind of economy that he wants to run on?

KHALID: So, Deirdre, where do the negotiations go from here? You know, you've made it sound like this is largely going to fall along party lines. So what's the timeline?

WALSH: So we expect the House Democrats to pass their bill pretty much on their own on Friday. Republicans are already calling it, you know, a Nancy Pelosi socialist wish list, sort of returning to socialism messaging talking points that we heard before the pandemic. And then I think what they're banking on is increasing pressure on Senate Republicans after they've passed this sort of menu of policy ideas to say like, look, we're working, we're responding to the needs of the pandemic and the Senate Republicans are refusing to act and just insisting on this provision that businesses want. And I think that, as we see what happens in states across the country and where the pressure is, I think there will be pressure for both sides to get back to the table and to negotiate a bipartisan deal. There's definitely going to need to be another relief package. I mean, Mitch McConnell agrees with that starting point. I think we just - we're pretty far apart right now as to what it's going to end up looking like.

LIASSON: Deirdre, they're going to vote on Friday, but how are they going to vote? They're not even in Washington.

WALSH: Well, you're right, Mara. The House is actually going to come back into town to vote on this. And we expect there to be like a long vote series where they vote in groups in a socially distant fashion. But the other thing the House is going to vote on on Friday is a proposal to allow in the future some remote voting, allowing members to give proxies to some of their colleagues to vote on bills when they're not able to travel back to Washington. And they're also going to vote on some rules for committee work to be done remotely. Republicans oppose those measures as well, so those are going to be adopted probably pretty much along party lines as well.

LIASSON: So we saw the Supreme Court do it. We saw the Senate doing it - do it in the hearing yesterday. And now the House Republicans are the lone holdout to virtual distance voting.

WALSH: They are.

KHALID: All right. Well, that's a wrap for today. Y'all know that every week, we end our show with a segment called Can't Let It Go. That's where we talk about the one thing that we cannot stop thinking about from the week, politics or otherwise. And we want to know what you can't let go of. You can send us a recording of yourself telling us what it is - 20 seconds is best - and an email it to nprpolitics@npr.org. We can't wait to listen to it.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh, congressional editor.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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