Democrats Use The Coronavirus Aid Bill To Push Their Long-Standing Policy Priorities

May 18, 2020
Originally published on May 18, 2020 8:28 pm
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Democrats say the $3 trillion coronavirus aid bill that was approved last week in the House is meant to meet the needs of everyday Americans. Republicans say that same bill is a partisan attempt to enact a longstanding wish list of Democrats' policy priorities. Progressive Democrats don't exactly dispute that, as NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell reports.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: The bill that passed the House on Friday is full of proposals Democrats have been pitching for years, from a more generous allowance for food stamps to changes in the way people qualify for federal benefits. The bill is a running list of policies Democrats want to enact even under normal circumstances.

KATHERINE CLARK: The coronavirus pandemic has exposed gaping holes in our social safety net and has brought into stark relief issues that we knew were there, but now we can see their devastating impacts so clearly.

SNELL: That's Katherine Clark, the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus. She pushed for funding for child care providers in the bill. She says women have always borne the brunt of the effects when schools and daycares are closed. That is playing out on an enormous scale with the coronavirus. Clark and other Democrats are proposing $50 billion in immediate child care funding, and they're also calling for long term structural change. Republicans, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, call that logic gross politics.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Democrats cannot stop salivating, salivating over the possibilities for partisan gain.

SNELL: Progressive say it may be partisan, but they believe the public is with them. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, says until the coronavirus hit, Republicans generally didn't support any expansion of domestic spending intended to help people in a crisis. Now there is a crisis, and Democrats want to use this moment to reform the system.

ROSE DELAURO: These folks have never wanted to go down this road and protect what was a social safety net that we've had in the past and a new social safety net for people in today's world.

SNELL: Take unemployment insurance. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, wants to tie the expanded benefits that passed in the CARES Act to the unemployment rate. When unemployment goes up, so do the benefits, so people can stay on their feet. He says the existing system hasn't worked for a long time. And this is a chance to fix it going forward.

RON WYDEN: The unemployment system, which was invented in the 1930s, is still in kind of a time work. Nobody ever heard of a gig worker back in the 1930s.

SNELL: Progressive Democrats say it makes sense to advocate for temporary policy changes now with the understanding that Democrats do want these programs to be made permanent. Some of these benefits, like extra unemployment, already got big bipartisan support and will be harder to take away later. Not all Democrats necessarily agree. Stephanie Murphy, who is one of the leaders of a group of fiscally conservative Democrats, says the coronavirus is creating unprecedented need. But she says any policies need to be reevaluated over time. And she says pushing for partisan policies in a divided Congress with a Republican president isn't the best path to making those ideas a reality.

STEPHANIE MURPHY: Only things that become law can actually help the people that we're trying to assist.

SNELL: So she says Democrats should look at their list of ideas and find places where they might get some buy-in from Republicans, like her proposal to extend and expand a tax credit for businesses that keep employees on the payroll during the crisis. But Democrats are hoping to take control of the Senate and the White House in November, which would make it easier to remake the system.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.