Congress Grapples with New Bipartisan Stimulus that Includes $1,200 Checks and Jobless Benefits

No new coronavirus relief has passed Congress since April.

Partisan gridlock has a group of lawmakers from both parties fed up with their leadership's inability to carve out a deal with the Trump administration for struggling Americans, and they are searching for a way forward.

Combining proposals from both parties and the White House, the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus unveiled a roughly $1.5 trillion stimulus proposal on Tuesday that includes a second round of $1,200 checks, enhanced weekly unemployment benefits, liability protections and money for schools, coronavirus testing, state governments, the U.S. Postal Service, the November election and small businesses.

The measure was touted by Problem Solvers Caucus members as a starting point that neither side of the aisle will likely be completely satisfied with, but one which they hope can be used to rekindle meaningful discussions.

But so far, the only thing congressional Democrats and the White House are discussing is how to avoid a government shutdown by passing a stopgap spending bill by month's end. And Democratic leadership in the House was quick to shoot down the bipartisan proposal, with committee chairs saying in a joint statement it "falls short of what is needed to save lives and boost the economy."

The Problem Solvers' pitch is largely a compromise of competing legislation pushed by Democrats and Republicans and the White House by roughly splitting the cost differences—House Democrats passed a $3.4 trillion package in May, Senate Republicans tried to advance a $500 billion bill last week and the White House's top line has been $1.3 trillion. It includes Democratic wishes including state aid and GOP favorites such as liability protections.

On the contentious issue of enhanced jobless benefits, which were previously $600 per week but expired at the end of July, the Problem Solvers suggest $450 per week for the next two months followed by 100 percent wage-replacement through January 2021. Based on the economy, the benefits could be extended by another three months starting in February, and a third round of individual checks could be issued in March, increasing the total price tag to around $2 trillion.

"This is not rocket science," Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) said. "This is just people willing to sit down together, build relationships in a system that instantly separates us from the moment we get into town, puts us on different buses to different events. Systematic separation begins on day one, to preserve the power structures in this place."

But the plan faces several hurdles and opposition from top Democrats, even as the pressure from rank-and-file members for Democratic leadership to act is mounting and Republicans have signaled they're open to the Problem Solvers' proposal.

Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), members of the House, staff and law enforcement members observe a moment of silence during an event on September 11 marking the anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks on the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. on the House East Front Steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Tuesday that the chamber will forgo its recess next month leading up to the November election and remain in session until a deal is struck and passed. However, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) explained to reporters on a conference call shortly after that it simply means the House will be on standby until a vote is scheduled, at which point members would be recalled to Washington to vote.

Hoyer offered lukewarm praise for the Problem Solvers' bipartisan proposal. The group is comprised of 50 lawmakers—25 Democrats and 25 Republicans—who are considered moderates in their respective parties. About 75 percent of the caucus has endorsed the idea.

"They certainly do not represent a Democratic offer," Hoyer said. "I think the Problem Solvers are lower than would be a responsible deal. But I think their ideas are useful, and maybe it will encourage our Republican friends to come up."

Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who along with Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) spearheaded the Problem Solvers' plan, said the response from House GOP leadership and the White House has "been positive." Senate Republicans have struggled to coalesce around any proposal $1 trillion or higher, complicating the upper chamber's ability to reach the necessary 60-vote threshold for any legislation.

"There's a package that could get a majority of the majority here, a majority of the minority over there, and you put it together and build it," Reed told Newsweek. "It's just got to be an indication of the willingness to sit in the room and find that."

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the No. 4 Republican in the upper chamber, told reporters that while he has reservations about the state aid, the package is potentially a formidable starting point for future talks.

"That's been the real difference from the start," Blunt said of the state funds. "There's a deal to be had. I hope [Pelosi] wants to find one."

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who along with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has led talks with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), described the bipartisan stimulus to Politico as "very thoughtful and certainly merits consideration."

But just hours earlier, White House senior advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner told CNBC what many in Washington are now predicting: "It may have to happen after the election, because there obviously are politics involved."

Pelosi's willingness to at least remain in session ahead of the election was welcome news for her most vulnerable members, many of whom had been pushing to pass more coronavirus relief before the November contest, since it's been four months since they passed the HEROES Act.

"What the House put forth months ago isn't moving forward, didn't get us a deal," said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a Problem Solvers member. "Now, the next step is, what comes next?"

The centrist New Democrat Coalition on Monday joined the Blue Dog Coalition, also a caucus of more moderate members, in the call for Pelosi to keep the House in session and move on some form of additional aid.

"We're not going to sit around for four months and watch this play out as a train wreck, and then leave that as our legacy," said Phillips, who is also part of the New Democrats.. "We're going to do something. If it costs us our jobs, so be it."

This story was updated to include a statement from the House Democratic committee chairs and remarks from Sen. Roy Blunt and Rep. Abigail Spanberger.