The Morning Dispatch: Congress Closes In On Pandemic Relief Deal

Plus: How Democrats will deal with a slim majority in the House.

Happy Thursday! And an extra happy Thursday to the pharmacists around the country who noticed they could squeeze extra doses of vaccine out of the Pfizer vials, potentially increasing our national supply by up to 40 percent!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Congressional leaders on Wednesday inched closer to finalizing a roughly $900 billion coronavirus relief package that will likely include enhanced unemployment insurance and direct payments to Americans, but exclude more contentious provisions: liability protections for employers sought by Republicans and increased funding for state and local governments sought by Democrats. 

  • Ten state attorneys general—led by Ken Paxton in Texas—sued Google on Wednesday, alleging the company conspired with Facebook to rig an illegal digital advertising monopoly. “We will strongly defend ourselves from his baseless claims in court,” a Google spokesperson said in response.

  • The Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to hear a case concerning whether the NCAA’s policy of restricting compensation for student athletes violates federal antitrust law.

  • Major League Baseball announced Wednesday that the Negro Leagues will be given major-league status to “highlight the contributions of the pioneers who played from 1920-1948.” Records books will be retroactively adjusted to rectify what the league said was “clearly an error,” ensuring all Negro League players will have their stats and achievements officially recognized by the MLB.

  • The United States confirmed 248,248 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 13.4 percent of the 1,786,767 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 3,929 deaths were attributed to the virus on Wednesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 307,429. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 113,069 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

A COVID Relief Deal in Sight?

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the virus caught our health systems unprepared and threatened to completely derail the U.S. economy, Congress acted quickly to prevent the worst of the damage, passing several monster federal aid packages to keep businesses and families solvent even as economic activity ground nearly to a halt overnight.

But as key provisions of that legislation expired over the summer, particularly expanded unemployment insurance for laid-off workers, lawmakers failed to find common ground on another round of aid, despite both parties’ stated interest in passing a bill. Perversely, Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on how many trillions of dollars the situation required—with the result that no new money was allotted at all.

Now, however, the logjam finally appears to be breaking apart. After days of negotiation, congressional leaders sounded confident that a deal will be struck before the end of the week, when a government shutdown deadline looms. “We’re gonna get there,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Wednesday evening. “We are very close,” said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

What’s changed since the last time negotiators failed to keep talks from collapsing? For one thing, there’s no more election-related incentive for lawmakers to take their ball and go home, then blame the fallout on the supposed recalcitrance of the opposing party. Election 2020 is over; might as well try to get some governing in before the politicking starts up again in 2022.

Additionally, a whole additional slate of CARES Act provisions was set to expire at the end of the year unless a new deal was struck, including jobless benefits for gig workers and the long-term unemployed.

None of this has brought lawmakers closer to compromising on their primary negotiating asks. Democrats still want to see a bill with serious money to bail out cities and states left cash-strapped by the pandemic, which—unlike the federal government—don’t have the ability to run near-bottomless spending deficits. And Republican leaders have long pushed for the next batch of legislation to contain liability protections to shield businesses and schools from lawsuits related to COVID transmission.

But lawmakers have warmed to the possibility of simply passing a bill that contains the spending priorities they can agree to, including about $325 billion in small business relief, a reinstatement of the CARES Act’s beefed-up unemployment insurance provisions (albeit at only half the previous rate of $600 per week), and another round of (also somewhat smaller than before) direct-aid checks to taxpayers. The whole thing is likely to carry a price tag of about $900 billion—which happens to mirror the sum proposed earlier this month in the House Problem Solvers Caucus’s compromise package almost exactly.

If a deal is struck, it’s unlikely to put an end to the relief debate for long. Republicans are likely to see this package as the last federal spending binge to bridge the gap until a critical mass of the U.S. population has received a coronavirus vaccine and normal economic life can resume. Meanwhile, Democrats are already describing the compromise deal as a stopgap measure until Joe Biden takes charge in the White House in January.

“The stimulus package is encouraging,” Biden said Wednesday. “It’s a down payment. An important down payment that’s going to have to be done.” 

House Democrats’ Majority Shrinks

House Democrats went into the 2020 election expecting to pick up more than a dozen seats. Instead, they lost just about every toss-up race and will begin the 117th Congress with the smallest House majority either party has held in two decades.

Making her Dispatch website debut this morning, Haley Byrd Wilt explores how the new dynamics will play out when Congress convenes in January. 

The math will force Democratic leaders to change their tactics, both in drafting bills and in reining in the rank and file. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be working with a margin of only a handful of Democratic votes—Democrats will have to be almost completely unified to pass any legislation Republicans oppose.

The weaker majority will influence the kinds of bills Democrats are able to pass.

Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth of Kentucky said it will be “very, very difficult” to advance a legislative agenda in the House. 

“There’s no way to sugarcoat it. I don’t know how we do anything significant,” he told The Dispatch during a brief interview at the Capitol. “The big picture is, I mean, there’s no chance we get anything done on immigration. There’s no chance. It’ll be even difficult to do infrastructure.”

The new majority also serves to empower individual members in this way: The margin for success on partisan legislation will be only a few Democrats.

Any handful of like-minded Democratic lawmakers will be able to band together in a small faction and insist that their priorities be reflected.

“The slimmer margin, it cuts both ways,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told The Dispatch last week. “It’s tough because we have to make sure that we cobble together a winning majority, but also it’s solid because we’re able to push a little bit more.”

Asked how willing she and her fellow progressives are to take advantage of the numbers to shape legislation, Ocasio-Cortez said it will be important for members “to not pull that trigger on a consistent and very sensitive basis.”

“But,” she added, “I do think that it gives us leverage to use that when it’s absolutely necessary.”

House Democratic leaders are considering how best to approach the new dynamic.

“When you’ve got 20 votes to spare, it’s a little different when you’ve only got two,” House Whip Jim Clyburn said. “So you make that adjustment, go from bill to bill. It’s not going to be any one standard thing.”

Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, a chief deputy whip for the Democratic Caucus, acknowledged the numbers “could constrain us a bit” and said there will be more of a focus on including members in the drafting process early on to make sure varying perspectives are addressed. 

“We’re going to have to really work hard to have a lot of voices in the room as things are being put together,” he said.

But there could also be procedural changes, like limiting tools for House floor debate, to make it easier for Democratic leaders to keep the party unified.

“We may see a once-in-a-century top-down process in the House in this upcoming Congress, just given the political conditions and the size of the majority,” Josh Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, said.

Worth Your Time

  • In a deeply personal feature for The Atlantic, McKay Coppins delves into his own experiences with the Mormon Church, looking ahead to the “most American religion’s” third century. As one of the fastest-growing faiths—averaging 700 converts a day—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has become an object of fascination in recent years for its relative resistance to Trumpism. “Scholars have offered an array of theories to explain this phenomenon,” Coppins writes. “That Mormon communities are models of connectedness and trust, that the Church’s unusual structure promotes consensus-building over culture war, that the faith’s early persecution has made its adherents less receptive to nativist appeals.” But ultimately, he notes that “Mormons didn’t become avatars of a Norman Rockwellian ideal by accident. We taught ourselves to play the part over a centuries-long audition for full acceptance into American life. That we finally succeeded just as the country was on the brink of an identity crisis is one of the core ironies of modern Mormonism.”

  • In a New York Times op-ed, President Trump’s former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert writes that the magnitude of Russia’s ongoing cyberattack “is hard to overstate.” He notes that it will take years to fully grasp the scope of the breach, but that, in the meantime, “we must act as if the Russian government has control of all the networks it has penetrated.” It’s a time for unity, he writes. “President Trump is on the verge of leaving behind a federal government, and perhaps a large number of major industries, compromised by the Russian government. He must use whatever leverage he can muster to protect the United States and severely punish the Russians. President-elect Joe Biden must begin his planning to take charge of this crisis. He has to assume that communications about this matter are being read by Russia, and assume that any government data or email could be falsified. At this moment, the two teams must find a way to cooperate.”

Something Delightful: The Sequel

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • As Declan wrote in a piece for the site yesterday, a surprising number of state Republican parties in recent weeks have been excoriating high-ranking GOP officials for acknowledging President Trump’s defeat in the presidential election. How will this GOP infighting play out over the next few months? Declan joined yesterday’s Dispatch Podcast to talk about his reporting. Stick around for a conversation on the 2021 races worth keeping an eye on, all things Hunter Biden, and, sigh, when you should call someone “doctor.”

  • In his Wednesday G-File (🔒), Jonah explores why so many conservatives have dispensed with conservative philosophy in favor of blind, religious fealty to Donald Trump: “We spent 2,000 years working toward an idea of government that American conservatives are charged with conserving. But for some reason that should all go out the window, because one fallen man is the Chosen One—the fact that he wasn’t chosen by the voters be damned.”

  • It appears that Western nations are finally waking up to the remarkable extent of the Chinese Communist Party’s infiltration of Western businesses and government. “Late last week, the British and Australian press were abuzz with a news story that deserves more attention—and scrutiny—here inside the U.S.,” writes Thomas Joscelyn in his latest Vital Interests (🔒) newsletter. “The story centers on an alleged database of approximately 1.95 million members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) around the world, many of whom work for or who have ties to Western companies or even government agencies.”

Let Us Know

The economic effects of the pandemic have been wildly uneven, with some people’s livelihoods wiped away entirely these past several months, while others’ are better than ever. Which bucket are you in? Do you have friends or family in the former? How are you feeling about the potential for another round of relief?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).