Early Saturday morning, the House passed legislation to enact paid sick leave for some people affected by the coronavirus, increase food assistance to students and families, and provide free testing for the disease.
“It's about putting families first,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last Thursday at her weekly press conference.
But it’s also an opportunity, congressional progressives have said, to prove that their policies work at a time when they’re consistently under attack for being too expensive or unrealistic.
“I really think that our push for Medicare for All is being highlighted — or the need for a system like that is being highlighted — right now with this,” Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair Rep. Pramila Jayapal said in an interview with BuzzFeed News Thursday. “You can see we're having to waive costs of tests … we're waiving the costs of other barriers that would prevent people from seeking medical care. And all of you know, a lot of those things would be a) so much easier and b) wouldn't be an issue if we have Medicare for All.”
Jayapal’s home state of Washington has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. The state had 769 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and 42 deaths, according to the most recent data from Johns Hopkins University researchers.
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As of last Thursday, about a dozen people in nursing homes in the state had tested positive, including one person in Jayapal’s own district, she said, a development that’s highly concerning due to the fact that older people are at the most risk should they contract the disease.
The coronavirus response package that passed the House requires some employers to provide full-time employees with up to 10 days of paid leave. Jayapal said she believes it could be a rare test run for progressive policies.
“We are clairvoyant,” Jayapal said, referring to the inclusion of many progressive policies in the Democratic response to coronavirus. It’s not only an opportunity to prove their priorities will work, she said, but also “that they are necessary for the rest of the economy to survive.”
“A lot of times what happens is, you know, these things get pitted against some other cost,” she said. “They're said to be too expensive or impractical or not necessary. And what a crisis like this shows — in a time like this shows — is that they are actually all of those things. They're practical, they're necessary, and we can afford them because the cost of not doing them is way more unaffordable.”
But it’s not a perfect test for Jayapal. After BuzzFeed News spoke with the Democrat, the bill’s paid sick leave policy was altered to exempt large companies with more than 500 employees.
The legislation, which also includes increased food security benefits, is still the subject of intense negotiation on Capitol Hill. It still needs to pass the Senate and President Donald Trump is pushing for a payroll tax cut and federal assistance for the oil and gas industry in response to the pandemic.
“Not only is he trying to focus on corporations and, really, corporate interests, but also doing things that are illogical, like trying to bail out [the] oil industry that you know are completely unrelated ” Rep. Mark Pocan, who serves as Jayapal’s cochair on the Progressive Caucus, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News Thursday.
Trump’s bailout plan is similar to the response to the 2008 financial crisis, Pocan said, and he thinks it’s misguided.
“We gave money to Wall Street, we gave money to the auto industry, we gave it to big companies or big industries,” he said. “This time, Nancy [Pelosi] has been very, very clear that this is something that's family-focused first.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill have balked at Trump’s payroll tax cut proposal, and though they have resisted House Democrats’ plan, Jayapal said Thursday she believed it was possible to pick up some Republican votes on the package, particularly because the proposals are temporary and tied to the virus.
“I've never believed that these ideas are partisan. I believe that they would bring enormous comfort to and support to everybody across the country, whether you're in a red district or a blue district,” she said — especially, now, she added, “because the cost is death.”
Earlier Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the Democrats’ proposal “as currently drafted” was dead on arrival in the Senate and merely “left-wing political messaging.” But Friday afternoon, House Democrats and the White House struck a deal, which passed the House last week and is set to pass the Senate early this week.