Jockeying begins in Congress over the next coronavirus relief bill

Democrats and Republicans begin public posturing over what may be included in the next round of federal spending for the pandemic.
Image: Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol on March 13, 2020.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

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By Leigh Ann Caldwell

WASHINGTON — The first three coronavirus relief bills passed Congress with relative ease — three massive bills in three weeks with overwhelming support.

But the early jockeying over the focus of a potential fourth aid package is already beginning to show deep partisan fault lines, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi outlining Democratic priorities and Senate Republicans pushing back.

In an attempt to draw a stark contrast with House Democrats, Senate Republicans are focusing their criticism on proposed spending provisions similar to ideas like the Green New Deal that might end up in a new bill.

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Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., warned Democrats on Tuesday of a looming fight on phase four.

"If anybody puts a dime in phase four unrelated to the virus, they're going to be very famous, because people are dying in this country — it is not time to do the Green New Deal," Graham said Tuesday on Fox News.

Pelosi, D-Calif., has been working with her relevant committee chairs and has floated new electric grid provisions and fuel standard requirements, as well as infrastructure projects. Pelosi hasn't released details, and while the Green New Deal encompasses those items, it's unclear whether they are the same.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has issued his own warning to House Democrats.

"I'm not going to allow this to be an opportunity for the Democrats to achieve unrelated policy items that they would not otherwise be able to pass," McConnell said in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Pelosi dismissed allegations that Democrats are politicizing the congressional response, saying everything she is suggesting is directly related to fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

"I hear people saying, 'They're doing this wish list.' That isn't so," she said Tuesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

"Everything we're doing is specific to the coronavirus challenge, and that would be to do infrastructure for water systems that are so essential, broadband because so many people are relying on telecommunication and social media and the rest."

Pelosi said the first two bills were about tackling the emergency, the third was about mitigation and the fourth should be about recovery.

"I do think that we've acted in a bipartisan way every step of the way, and we will continue to do so. We may have our differences, but we have to find our common ground," she said.

Beginning even before the third bill, the $2 trillion CARES Act, which passed Congress last week, Pelosi had been vocal about what the bill left out and about staking out her position on what a fourth relief bill would look like.

Pelosi said she also wants the next measure to include more money for state and local governments and enhanced worker safety provisions for those on the front lines, including health care providers and grocery store workers. She said she wants the newly expanded but temporary paid family and medical leave provisions to cover even more people. She has also said more direct payments to individuals might be necessary.

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Senate Republicans have already balked at some of Pelosi's ideas, including a repeal of the State and Local Tax provision in the 2017 tax cut bill, known by the shorthand SALT. The SALT cap is a tax that House Democrats have voted to repeal because, they argue, it disproportionally affects people in cities with higher costs of living.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Finance Committee, called repealing the SALT tax a "nonstarter."

"Millionaires don't need a new tax break as the federal government spends trillions of dollars to fight a pandemic," he said.

But even amid the partisan divide, there is one potential area of agreement.

While Senate Republicans are far from endorsing infrastructure as part of the next phase, they could be convinced by President Donald Trump, who has said infrastructure is a priority of his and seemed to endorse the idea in a tweet Tuesday morning.

"With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill. It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country! Phase 4," Trump tweeted.