House Democrats had one chief goal heading into the 2020 election — expose the starkest gap between their party and the GOP. Now that’s been turned on its head.
The global coronavirus pandemic that has completely transformed American public life has also upended the Democrats’ carefully choreographed legislative agenda. It’s forced the majority party to abandon the typical election-year playbook of messaging bills and long recesses that stretch in most of the fall as members hit the campaign trail.
And instead of focusing on whacking President Donald Trump at every turn, Democrats will be staring down a vastly different to-do list in the coming months — much of it requiring a lot less antagonizing of the White House.
“It’s just changed everything completely on how we approach everything,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said in an interview. “The goals are the same but the strategy on how we get there has changed.”
Democrats acknowledge the new reality of historic unemployment and fears of spreading the deadly virus makes it far harder to set the tone of a national electoral message from the halls of the Capitol — let alone run their campaigns — ahead of one of the most critical elections for their party in a decade.
There are unanswered questions in both parties about what is appropriate in terms of fundraising and campaigning during the national crisis as Americans are urged to stay home and the country faces an unprecedented economic downturn. In addition, Democrats must strike a delicate balance between drubbing the president and persuading voters to deny him another term and working with Trump to deliver trillions more dollars in desperately needed aid to their hard-hit states and districts.
During the initial days of the coronavirus crisis, Democratic leaders weren’t as publicly critical of Trump as they worked to push through multiple trillion-dollar rescue bills in March. But that tone has shifted in recent days, as negotiations on additional funding have stalled and Trump talks of reopening the country as soon as May 1 against the advice of health experts.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a scathing letter Tuesday criticizing Trump for his administration’s early missteps that many experts say have exacerbated the impact of the pandemic in the U.S. And she issued another harsh statement Wednesday about Trump’s “catastrophic failure to treat this crisis with the urgency it demands” after reports that stimulus checks to tens of millions of Americans were delayed in order to have his name printed on them.
Trump and Pelosi haven’t spoken in months, with Democrats mainly negotiating the emergency relief packages with the administration through Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. But the country’s two most powerful leaders must maintain some kind of working relationship in order to continue addressing the coronavirus crisis, even in the heated weeks leading up to the election.
Rank-and-file lawmakers say they’re trying to quickly hit the reset button on their strategy. Several Democrats say they’re looking at issues that were once at the heart of the caucus’ mission, like immigration, climate change and rooting out corruption, and tweaking them to reflect the current crisis — with an added focus on health care and the economy.
Cuellar, for example, whose district sits on the border with Mexico, introduced a bill that would halt border construction to help protect workers during the pandemic — which he said allowed him to highlight aspects of Trump’s failed policy in a tone that fit the moment.
“We have those other issues that might have been No. 1 for some of us, but the health issue has been elevated to No. 1,” Cuellar said. “We’ve still got to bring up those issues that are still important to the district.”
Many Democrats say the pandemic will only boost support for priorities like universal health coverage after dramatizing some of the nation’s ugliest health and income disparities. And they say it could translate to other progressive issues, as well.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) added that the all-hands-on-deck national response to the pandemic amounted to “a dress rehearsal for addressing the catastrophic impacts of climate change.”
“That's what this election is going to be about, can the government be an instrument in the common good?” Raskin said in an interview.
Some issues Democrats have been talking about for years in their much-touted “For the People” agenda have resurfaced in a new and pressing way: infrastructure, election security and even broadband internet.
Yet Republicans also pushed back against Pelosi in March when she insisted on a broad set of goals in the most recent coronavirus relief package, including broadband and infrastructure.
“Specific bills, when we are not in session, may be treated differently,” House Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) said in an interview Wednesday, dismissing concerns that the pandemic might distract from other priorities they planned to address in 2020.
“But all of those issues, immigration policy, climate change, are so interwoven into what we’re seeing and how we’re going to handle the public health crisis and how we handle the recovery,” Clark said. “All of these issues have had their urgency reconfirmed.”
Top Democrats were just beginning to sketch out an agenda for the second year of their majority, after impeaching the president in December, when the outbreak struck. Clark and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), swiftly postponed their annual policy retreat, scheduled for early April.
Even before the virus fully took hold, Democratic leaders signaled a turn away from politics as usual — sensitive to the mounting uncertainty and rising caseloads in the U.S. In March, Democrats pulled a bill that would have repealed Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, which had long been a priority of progressives.
But it’s not just a shift in message. The pandemic has also radically altered Congress’s calendar, scattering lawmakers across the country for half of March and all of April — and possibly beyond.
That abrupt schedule change will likely require House leaders to keep members in for longer periods later in the year, cutting into recess periods — which can be two full months or more in election years — and hindering campaigning.
“Our return will be dictated by the facts on the ground, of course, and once we’re back the schedule will likely change to accommodate the work we have to get done,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday.
Congress has already passed its biggest economic rescue bills in history, doling out trillions of dollars to prop up an unsteady economy and shore up fragile health care systems.
But lawmakers say much more is needed and will add to the House’s already strained summer load of appropriations and defense policy bills.
Already, that work is likely to be delayed. Hoyer said he was still confident the House could complete its annual spending bills by June — but only if lawmakers deem it’s safe for them to return to the Capitol sometime next month, which still isn’t clear.
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The No. 2 Democrat said it should be relatively easy for the two parties to reach a deal on spending because they have already agreed on top-line numbers. But, Hoyer conceded, the dozen bills that cover federal spending would not pass the House via a simple voice vote if lawmakers are still homebound.
“We won’t pass appropriation bills by unanimous consent I'm sure,” Hoyer said.
The mammoth Pentagon policy bill, typically completed over the summer, is also expected to slip past October. That could require lawmakers — including vulnerable freshmen — to be stuck in markups just weeks ahead of the campaign.
There’s other evidence of how Congress’ legislative work has been hindered as it confronts the pandemic. Key federal surveillance provisions, for example, lapsed with both parties deadlocked over how to reauthorize them.
Some oversight duties related to the Trump administration — like claims that his personal businesses have profited from foreign governments' spending — may also fall to the back burner, as Democrats take on a massive watchdog role in monitoring over $2 trillion in coronavirus funds.
But Clark stressed that Democrats would maintain their accountability work, though she wouldn’t say exactly how much would focus on the president's actions before the coronavirus struck.
“There is always a place for our constitutional responsibility for oversight,” Clark said, noting the “frightening and dangerous pattern” of Trump removing his administration's own internal watchdogs. “In this pandemic, our oversight role that is required of us by the Constitution is a critical piece.”