The top Democrats in Congress said Thursday that a record surge in U.S. coronavirus infections raises the urgency for a new relief bill.
The part of the process that has confounded Washington for months — crafting a bill backed by both Democrats and Republicans — has become no less of a challenge since Election Day.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she still supports legislation to inject at least $2.2 trillion into the American health-care system and economy. The California Democrat, who will see her party's majority shrink by at least six seats after the 2020 election, cited Wednesday's record 143,231 new Covid-19 infections as reason to stick to a spending demand the GOP has seen as unreasonable.
"We're at the same place, even more so with the pandemic," she said. "Because look at those numbers!"
Her comments reflect a fundamental disagreement with Republicans over what the U.S. needs to recover from the pandemic. The gulf has lingered throughout start-and-stop talks between Pelosi and the White House.
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged the need for another aid package but said it should resemble the GOP's $500 billion proposal that Senate Democrats blocked before the election.
"I gather [Pelosi] and the Democratic leader in the Senate still are looking at something dramatically larger," the Kentucky Republican told reporters. "That's not a place I think we're willing to go. But I do think there needs to be another package. Hopefully we can get past the impasse we've had now for four or five months and get serious about doing something that's appropriate."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer indicated again Thursday that Democrats would block a bill similar to the one Republicans previously crafted. The New York Democrat called it a "nonstarter" as he backed Pelosi's stance of at least $2.2 trillion in new spending.
Schumer also contended many GOP senators' refusal to acknowledge Democrat Joe Biden as president-elect — while President Donald Trump levels baseless charges of electoral fraud — has hampered efforts to govern during the crisis.
"Joe Biden has won. Now move on and work with us to solve the Covid crisis," he said. "Let us bring the country together and get things done."
Biden spoke to Pelosi and Schumer later Thursday. The Democrats agreed on the need for coronavirus aid before the president-elect takes office, according to a joint readout of the call.
"They discussed the urgent need for the Congress to come together in the lame duck session on a bipartisan basis to pass a bill that provides resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, relief for working families and small businesses, support for state and local governments trying to keep frontline workers on the payroll, expanded unemployment insurance, and affordable health care for millions of families," according to the readout, which added that the leaders "will stay in close touch in the days ahead."
Lawmakers would have to overcome a number of challenges to pass pandemic relief legislation before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. Among the barriers, Trump has showed little interest in anything other than fighting the election results since Nov. 3.
Biden has listed coronavirus aid as one of his top priorities when he enters office. Control of Congress during his presidency is an open question.
The GOP will keep a narrow Senate majority unless Democrats can win two likely runoffs in Georgia in January. Even if Democrats win both races, they would achieve a 50-50 split, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris holding a tiebreaking vote.
Democrats could also end up with 224 seats or even less in the House, according to NBC News estimates, giving Pelosi a smaller margin of error for party defections on legislation.
Headline economic numbers in the U.S. have improved: initial jobless claims lingered near their lowest levels of the pandemic last week, the Labor Department said Thursday. Even so, more than 21 million Americans remain on some form of unemployment assistance, and economic pain could sharpen as more states consider restrictions to slow the spiking infection rate.