Frosh House Dem to Pelosi: Pass a COVID-19 relief bill if you want my vote for speaker

No, it’s not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who expressed a resigned tolerance to Nancy Pelosi’s upcoming re-election as House Speaker. For Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, however, the months-long failure to produce a relief bill could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back — maybe. The moderate from MN-03, also part of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, tells the Star Tribune that he issued an ultimatum to Pelosi, and that he plans to stick by it:

But Phillips’ work as part of the group has put the freshman from Minnesota’s suburban Third District in an awkward position. At times he’s had to defend his conservative colleagues in the caucus on national TV, while privately putting the pressure on his own Democratic leadership in the House to strike a deal.

In an hourlong meeting just before Thanksgiving, Phillips said he told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that his support for her in a leadership vote on Jan. 3 will depend on getting a deal by then.

“Most people who meet with the speaker and discuss support for her ask for a committee assignment … or for personal favors,” Phillips said. “[My request] was pretty simple and it, frankly, has repercussions to me and others and they have already started.”

Without a deal, Phillips said, he will cast his ballot for someone else for speaker, though he declined to say whom he might support. A request for comment from Pelosi’s office was not returned.

The timing on this ultimatum certainly raises some questions. Phillips says that he got “flooded with calls” from his colleagues since putting Pelosi on the spot. Just a few days later, Pelosi suddenly shifted off her $2.4 trillion demand and the HEROES Act and backed the newer centrist framework for Phase 4 relief discussions. And now, reportedly, Pelosi has even backed away from bloc-grant state and local government aid, which she had earlier sworn to get no matter what.

The shift has become rather remarkable, as The Hill pointed out today. It looks like Mitch McConnell’s winning again, at least on the scope of the bill:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is getting much of what he wants in an emerging coronavirus relief package, after months of digging in his heels against a demand by Democratic leaders to pass a multitrillion-dollar package that would shore up the ailing finances of state and local governments. …

Democrats are getting $90 billion in relief for local governments but it will be distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, meaning city and state leaders will have less control. Democrats say that money for housing assistance will also help ease the fiscal burdens on states.

But McConnell is getting a deal a lot closer to what Democrats dismissed as the “emaciated” plan he pushed in recent months than the $2.2 trillion HEROES Act that Pelosi and Schumer said should have been the “starting point” of the talks.

Pelosi has been trying to spin her climb-down as a staging strategy, but The Hill’s report makes it clear that it was a full-on retreat — and that her caucus notices:

But some House Democrats said the emerging deal is a major blow to Pelosi. Weeks before the election, White House negotiators had offered the Democrats a $1.9 trillion relief package, but Pelosi rejected it at the time, saying it fell short of the $2.2 trillion that was needed. Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also clashed on coronavirus testing language, sources said.

Now, months later and with tens of thousands of more Americans dead from the pandemic, Pelosi is preparing to accept a COVID-19 package that is about $1 trillion less than that last White House offer.

Did Phillips’ threat force Pelosi to capitulate to McConnell? In more normal circumstances, this kind of ultimatum could be easily ignored as an empty threat. Right now, however, it looks as though Pelosi only has a nine-vote majority in the next session of Congress. That means she can only afford to lose four or five votes in her caucus in the Speaker election to avoid going to a second ballot — or losing altogether to Republican Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader. Either would be a humiliation that would all but force Pelosi to retire.

If Phillips managed to get a handful of House Democrats to back up that ultimatum, then that would explain why Pelosi suddenly moved off her pork-filled HEROES Act and got comfortable with getting “skinnier.” Better to go on a diet than to watch her career as party leader go down in flames.

David Strom 6:41 PM on September 26, 2022
David Strom 4:41 PM on September 26, 2022