Frustrations simmer as Congress prepares rare August work

Even the August recess — one of the Congress’s most hallowed traditions — has now been uprooted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The impasse between Democrats and Republicans over a massive economic recovery package has spilled into next month, and shows no sign of ending soon. Hundreds of lawmakers are being sent home — for now — with a warning they may be called back with a day’s notice if an agreement is reached. Meanwhile, millions of out-of-work Americans are set to lose an additional $600-a-week in federal employment benefits in the coming days.

In the House, lawmakers departed D.C.’s swampy summer heat on Friday filled with frustration as party leaders in both chambers remained deadlocked over what to do with the expiring economic relief.

The jet fumes typically wafting past the chamber on the last day of July has been replaced by a sense of dread, particularly among Democrats, who passed a nearly $3.5 trillion bill months ago but now need to explain back home why Congress allowed a crucial financial lifeline for jobless Americans to lapse.

“People are feeling a lot of hardship right now. There’s a lot of suffering,” Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) said in an interview during a final round of votes on Friday. “I think partisanship and disagreement has locked down Washington. It’s inexcusable.”

Lawmakers often look forward to decamping from D.C. in August and returning to their districts, especially in the critical months before an election when retail politics can make or break an incumbent. But this year is devastatingly different.

“It’s even more difficult to be back in the district because there is a lot of frustration and anger out there directed towards Congress,” Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) said. “A lot of people understand where the holdup is — in the Senate — but most voters just know that hey, Congress isn’t providing relief.”

House leaders gave their members permission to leave Washington this weekend as long as they can return within 24 hours to vote on an eventual deal, if it is ever reached.

“We will not start the August district work period until we pass appropriate Covid-19 relief to meet the current health and economic crisis,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announced on the floor Friday.

Hoyer’s announcement wasn’t exactly a surprise. But a collective groan could almost be heard across the Capitol as his words reverberated through the House chamber. That means members will need to make yet another back-and-forth trek from their districts amid the raging global pandemic, with coronavirus cases still spiking in dozens of states and an estimated 1,000 Americans dying a day from Covid-19.

Some lawmakers said they may not return for the vote — which would put them at further risk of contracting the virus as cases continue to surge — and would instead cast their vote by proxy for the next round of relief.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and White House negotiators have made little headway on a bipartisan coronavirus relief deal, despite meeting for several hours over several days this week.

Instead, leaders of both parties have continued their public posturing — pointing fingers at the other side for allowing critical federal unemployment benefits and a federal evictions moratorium to lapse, even as jobless claims tick up and experts worry about the economy cratering.

“We don’t have shared values, that’s just the way it is,” Pelosi declared to reporters Friday. Meanwhile, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows took to his own podium at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue to accuse Democrats of causing the impasse.

In the Senate — where the House’s nearly $3.5 trillion relief bill has languished for two months — the fingerpointing intensified Thursday as senators from each party made opposing procedural motions intended to ramp up the pressure on the other. In the end, the chamber adjourned with no resolution, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has only sought to pin the blame on Pelosi and Democrats.

But even some Senate Republicans — who had, for weeks, resisted a deal — told reporters this week that they felt uncomfortable leaving for the weekend after the Senate adjourned Thursday with the unemployment aid set to expire. The Senate plans to begin its lengthy summer recess starting on Aug. 10, though that date, too, could be pushed back without a deal.

“I'd prefer to stay here today and tomorrow and get it done like we did the last time but apparently there's just not enough progress to justify that,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said before senators left Washington on Thursday.

“I remain hopeful that at some point next week, you know, people come back and realize that we're going to have to do this eventually so might as well do it now."

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), too, said that lawmakers likely would have stayed the weekend if a deal was just one or two days away. But that scenario remains unlikely.

"We can pretend that we're here working but if we're just here killing time for an eventuality next week, I think you have to play up those practical things,” he said.

Tensions in the Capitol had already been escalating before this week’s standoff in coronavirus talks. Last week, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) was witnessed verbally harassing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) over her political views just steps from the House chamber. And some rank-and-file GOP lawmakers tore into one of their own leaders, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), over disagreements on Trump.

Not to mention it’s been a devastating few weeks in the House with the death of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) on July 17 and the days of public grieving that followed. Before that, the nationwide reckoning over race led to the first real discussions on police reform in years, but ultimately collapsed amid partisan disputes.

“The biggest thing going through most of our heads probably right now is still John Lewis. He was such a good friend to all of us,” Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) said. “To have so many inspiring views, thoughts, remembrances of him, and then to have the drag we’re in. That’s disappointing.”

Anxiety in the Capitol further intensified this week after Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) — who is notoriously lax about wearing masks — tested positive for the virus, raising new questions about safety inside the building.

That all comes after a brutal year, with the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in February that was over just weeks before Congress was forced to swiftly shutter the Capitol and draft massive legislation dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession that followed.

Since then, the year has only mushroomed into chaos as a Congress established in the 18th Century struggled to respond to a 21st Century pandemic. Not even August recess is spared — something lawmakers insist is the furthest thing from their mind as Congress struggles to reconcile around a coronavirus aid bill with millions of people struggling to pay their bills and provide food for their families.

“We have to stand ready. We know that we’re actually not going to have an August work period [until it's done],” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.).

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Pandemic jumbles House agenda

The House was already facing a deadline crunch this summer, with a slew of must-pass bills threatening to overwhelm lawmakers for months.

And that was before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi will summon members back to Washington this week to begin work on an election year to-do list that has grown longer and more urgent amid the nation’s dual economic and health crises. If Congress falters, the government could shut down, and millions of Americans facing unemployment amid the pandemic could suffer more.

“We have a full agenda that people have been working on for a long time, so it’s a continuation of that, but also an intensification,” Pelosi told reporters late last week, ticking off looming deadlines for appropriations and a defense policy bill, on top of more pandemic recovery packages.

It’s the start of a monthslong slog of spending and policy fights, with Republicans and Democrats battling over everything from the border wall to expanding transit lines to transgender troops. The partisan warfare will only ramp up as Democrats fight to keep their House majority, take back the White House and potentially flip the GOP-held Senate — all in the uncertain political terrain of a global pandemic.

In a typical election year both the House and Senate would hardly be around in the waning weeks leading up to November. Instead, lawmakers would be campaigning for themselves, other candidates and their party’s presidential nominee.

But much of that schedule has been scrambled this year, as the House and Senate were forced to recess for several weeks this spring to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The Senate returned in early May to focus on nominations and held a handful of coronavirus hearings, but the House has continued to operate on a limited schedule with leaders warning that previously scheduled off days in the coming months will likely be scrapped to make up for lost time.

The House has voted only on coronavirus-related bills since the pandemic shuttered much of the U.S. in March — a total of $6 trillion in relief bills, though only half that amount has become law. Pelosi has already said she plans to do more but Senate Republicans — who have adopted a wait-and-see approach to the next relief package — have ignored the most recent $3 trillion House bill.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters last week he didn’t expect negotiations on more relief bills to start until the “third or fourth week of June.”

“We just had a lot of our colleagues lecture us about the fact that the tens of billions of dollars aren’t even out yet,” Grassley said. “And we need to know what the need is. You hear about the governors wanting $500 billion for state aid. You got Pelosi putting in $1 trillion.”

For now, with the next tranche of coronavirus relief in limbo, Democrats will pivot to Congress’ other major priorities for the year.

The first vote, expected to take place Wednesday, will be to restore expired federal spy powers, which lapsed in March amid disagreements about how to balance U.S. privacy and security, even among the two parties. The House will also vote on two bills dealing with the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides coronavirus-relief loans to small businesses. The votes will represent the first time in the chamber’s history that proxy voting will be used on the floor.

But there’s far more to do in the coming weeks, with annual chores like crafting spending legislation and the Pentagon policy bill that will become far thornier — if not virtually impossible — in the middle of a heated presidential campaign.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, during a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Donald Trump's last big demand in a funding bill, the border wall, led to the longest-ever government shutdown, and that was nearly two years before his reelection. And this year's defense policy bill is already attracting attention from House progressives, who say they want to cut Pentagon funding to shore up domestic programs amid the pandemic.

Then there’s the less frequent but equally challenging bills that also come due this year, such as a massive federal highway bill, flood insurance and water infrastructure. That’s on top of the long-delayed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

What’s more, the House and Senate will likely need to revisit key parts of Congress’ behemoth coronavirus relief programs, which expire in the coming months. A massive expansion in unemployment benefits ends July 31 — which top Republicans are already saying they won’t renew — and loans through the Paycheck Protection Program end June 30.

The cries for help from state and local governments facing shortfalls amid the pandemic will only grow more desperate as the start of the next fiscal year approaches on July 1.

“Clearly, this is a year without precedent. And, of course, many of us know the old adage is ‘You can't get anything done in an election year,’” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who co-authored a small-business loan flexibility bill that is expected to reach the floor for a vote this week with conservative Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas.).

But the House will need to negotiate with the Senate, which is nearing a deal on its own version of a loan flexibility bill. The Senate's would give businesses up to 16 weeks to use their loans, while the House bill would provide businesses 24 weeks. Pelosi said on a private caucus call that the House could pass its bill this week.

“Nobody, I think, amongst the people with whom I’ve been working with, believes that we can't get things done,” Phillips continued. “The question is, do we have the fortitude and the intention and the power in collaboration to do so.”

The House initially planned to pass all 12 of its appropriations bills on the floor by June. That timeline has slipped as top Democrats raced to draft this month’s $3 trillion coronavirus relief package, which passed on May 15. And now leaders of the House Appropriations Committee say they won’t move to marking up its bills until Congress can agree on another massive infusion of federal coronavirus relief, which may be weeks down the line.

Still, many senior lawmakers and aides are already predicting Congress will do what it does best — punt.

Any decision on the next coronavirus relief measure will require close coordination among House Democrats, Senate Republicans and the White House — a relationship that’s grown more fraught as Democrats have demanded trillions more in aid for states, localities, workers and businesses from a resistant GOP.

And now the House, which was forced to remain largely homebound for the past two months, has some catching up to do on its yearly to-do list.

Many of the chamber’s hearings and markups, which might normally have taken place before Memorial Day, are still in the works. But they will now largely be moved online after lawmakers voted along party lines last week to allow committees to hold them remotely.

House leaders have just begun mapping out which bills will come to the floor first, confident that both Appropriations and Armed Services panels can complete their work in the coming weeks.

The House will be able to vote remotely for the next 45 days, but some members have privately pushed their leadership to roll together several votes into a single week — rather than coming back every week in June.

Senior Democrats argue, though, that they can complete their agenda.

“We can’t worry — you can get bogged down worrying,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a senior appropriator, when asked about this year's truncated schedule. “You’ve got to adjust, step up and do the work.”

Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.

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Pelosi’s ally, the underdog and the next-in-line: Dems battle to lead spending panel

A battle to lead the powerful House Appropriations Committee has broken out behind the scenes, as a trio of lawmakers vie for the coveted leadership post that oversees all federal spending.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who has spent 27 years on the panel, remains the frontrunner in the three-way race since first announcing her candidacy in October, according to interviews with more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers and aides. DeLauro has long been a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a relationship that hasn’t gone unnoticed by rank-and-file Democrats and could sway some members even if the speaker doesn’t put her muscle behind a candidate.

But the contest, in which Democrats won’t vote for months, may not be decided until the final moments. Some Democrats are already speculating about a potential last-minute shakeup led by dark horse challenger Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who previously chaired the Democratic National Committee but has significantly less seniority on the spending panel.

Wasserman Schultz — who is 20 years younger than both DeLauro and the third competitor, Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio — is mounting a long-shot bid as she calls for “generational diversity” in the upper ranks of a Democratic Caucus long ruled by a trio of septuagenarians. It’s her first foray into the spotlight after resigning from the DNC amid scandal in 2016.

But Kaptur — who has already been passed over once for the spot — could struggle to build a coalition broad enough to defeat DeLauro and her many allies in the caucus. And younger Democrats, including those in the Congressional Black Caucus, aren’t nearly as wedded to seniority as their older colleagues, with some saying privately they are open to Wasserman Schultz.

Democrats won’t vote on the vacancy until after the 2020 elections, but the rare opening for the prized perch — current Chairwoman Nita Lowey has been the top Democrat on the panel since 2013 — has already set off an intense round of jockeying.

Chairwoman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, speaks as Energy Secretary Perry appears before a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In recent weeks, the three competing Democrats have dramatically stepped up their outreach, approaching members on the House floor and following up with calls, in-person pitch meetings, caucuswide letters and coveted campaign donations.

“It’s certainly early but I think this is one of those times — because everyone knows the opening is going to be there — that folks do tend to start early,” said Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan, who sits on the influential Democratic Steering panel.

Kildee, like many other members interviewed, said he’s already leaning toward a candidate but sees no reason to announce it publicly given the vote isn’t until the end of the year.

“Working it early helps, but you really don’t get serious until the election, and then everyone goes crazy,” he added.

Democrats are also speculating about other potential surprises that could throw the three-way race into a tailspin. Other senior members of the Appropriations panel, including Rep. Barbara Lee of California, have refused to rule out their own bids.

And some Democrats have even floated the idea of House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a close Pelosi ally who led Democrats’ impeachment efforts, returning to the panel and running for the top spot. Democrats close to Schiff said that idea is unlikely, although they didn’t rule it out.

Many Democrats, however, say it’s likely too late for other members to enter the race, with the three contenders already deep in conversations across the caucus.

So far, DeLauro has largely concentrated on winning over members of the Democratic Steering Committee, the influential group that will handpick a preferred nominee ahead of the caucuswide vote, according to lawmakers and aides familiar with the discussions. She already has a strong advantage, serving as one of the Pelosi-appointed co-chairs of that committee since 2003.

Kaptur — known as a policy wonk — has taken a lighter touch, shoring up support from her closest allies in the Ohio delegation and other Midwestern states. Kaptur also sent a “Dear Colleague” letter this month, in which she stressed her nearly three decades on the committee, where she's served on 11 out of 12 subcommittees.

Kaptur, who represents a hardscrabble industrial district, has also promised fellow Democrats to help "save our endangered middle-class" and bolster low-income communities, in part, by "bringing equity to the appropriations process."

Wasserman Schultz, meanwhile, is taking a more aggressive approach with her outreach. She’s now given her personal pitch to nearly every member of the caucus and is continuing to set up private meetings, according to Democrats close to her. She has also met with the moderate Blue Dog Coalition and will meet with the New Democrat Coalition, of which she is a member, in the coming weeks.

Ranking member Rep. Rosa DeLauro D-Conn., questions Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at a House Committee on Appropriation subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Wasserman Schultz, in some ways, was an unexpected addition to the race; her 11 years on the committee pales in comparison to the lengthy records of DeLauro and Kaptur. But she is attempting to sway her colleagues with another line on her résumé: her powerhouse fundraising abilities.

Wasserman Schultz is “the underdog,” said one Democrat on the Appropriations panel. “The answer isn’t ‘No it’s not possible.’ There’s a narrow lane.”

The Florida Democrat has been a strong fundraiser for her colleagues, particularly for vulnerable members, even after her time atop the DNC ended in scandal in 2016, with leaked emails showing an attempt to undermine the presidential candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders in favor of Hillary Clinton.

Since then, Wasserman Schultz has retreated from high-profile roles in the Democratic Caucus even as she has continued to build a massive fundraising war chest.

So far this cycle, Wasserman Schultz raised $1.01 million for House Democrats, including $409,000 for the most vulnerable members, according to numbers provided by her campaign. A complete set of fundraising numbers won’t be available until the end of the next quarter.

“Above all, we must protect our majority. If there's no gavel to pick up next year, we return to the back benches. And I won't let that happen,” Wasserman Schultz said.

DeLauro has raised $385,000 so far this cycle, including $210,500 for the party’s more endangered members, according to her campaign — less than half of Wasserman Schultz’s total.

“I am proud of those strong numbers because they enable Democrats to enact the legislation necessary to help working people and the middle class,” DeLauro said.

Kaptur has raised $351,000 for House Democrats so far this cycle, including $51,000 for “frontline” members, according to her office.

Kaptur has regularly paid her DCCC dues. Still, her fundraising is generally below her two competitors in terms of additional giving to DCCC and to the party's most vulnerable members, according to a POLITICO review of campaign reports from the 2014 cycle through January 2020.

Privately, the Ohio Democrat is often critical of the outsize role that fundraising has taken on Capitol Hill, according to people close to her. When Kaptur initially sought the gavel against Lowey in 2012, fundraising was often one of the first subjects their colleagues asked about.

The fundraising reports show another disparity in the three candidates’ numbers: Wasserman Schultz has raised an average of $1.049 million for endangered Democrats over the past three cycles, compared to $95,000 for DeLauro and $100,100 for Kaptur.

DeLauro is widely expected to win the first stage of the contest — the Steering Committee vote — but some Democrats speculate that she could face competition from Wasserman Schultz in the caucuswide vote, usually held the next day.

The caucus vote is usually little more than a rubber stamp, however, as rank-and-file lawmakers rarely reject the Steering Committee’s nominee.

But it’s not out of the question. It’s the same path that now-House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone took in 2014, when he beat out Pelosi’s favored candidate and close friend, Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, for the panel’s ranking member slot during a caucus-wide vote.

Since that race — which was unusual for the public nastiness on display from both sides — both Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who went all-in for Pallone, have tended to stay out of chairmanship contests.

Pelosi didn’t endorse in the race between Reps. Jerry Nadler of New York and Zoe Lofgren of California to lead the House Judiciary Committee, despite Lofgren being a close friend of the speaker. And neither Pelosi nor Hoyer is expected to get involved in the Appropriations contest, according to allies close to both leaders. Lowey is also not expected to weigh in.

Rank-and-file Democrats, particularly those who sit on the Steering panel, say they’ve already been inundated with candidate pitches, which will only ramp up in the coming months.

“The candidates are very proactive. But it’s a long process and it’s relatively far away," said Rep. Grace Meng of New York, another Appropriations member. "They’ve got to do what they have to do. But I think it’s a bit early for all of us to make the decision.”

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