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'Millions of Real People's Lives Are at Stake': As Pelosi Battles White House, Ro Khanna Says Democrats Can Win Morally—and Politically

"It is in the interest of progressive Democrats to show that government can be a force of good, and this is the time for us to act."

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) speaks during a press conference following a vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on April 4, 2019. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Pointing to the unprecedented food bank lines, housing insecurity, and economic suffering in his district and across the country as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage the United States, Rep. Ro Khanna told Common Dreams Wednesday that it is both morally right and in the political interest of the Democratic Party to fight for a deal with the White House on coronavirus relief ahead of the pivotal November election.

"If we treated Covid-19 relief like we treat our military budget, we would have already passed the most comprehensive plan possible with bipartisan support and relieved suffering for millions of people."
—Rep. Ro Khanna

In a phone interview, the California Democrat relayed the story of a constituent earning around $50,000 per year who has been forced to dip into his 401(k) savings to pay his mortgage after his wife—like tens of millions of other Americans in recent months—lost her job.

"He was telling me that if he doesn't get some help in the next month or two, he's going to have to lose his house and leave the Bay Area," said Khanna. "That story is so common in my district and it's common around the country."

Thus far the only progressive member of Congress to publicly urge House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to run with the White House's $1.8 trillion relief offer, Khanna said it's not acceptable to deny much-needed aid to millions of people on the basis of speculative political calculations—such as whether President Donald Trump could derive electoral benefit from the approval of another round of stimulus checks that he can put his name on.

Just because Trump may try to spin a relief deal to his advantage, Khanna said, "doesn't mean we deny people the money they need or the relief they need."

"Millions of real people's lives are at stake," the congressman said.

Despite the dire economic and public health circumstances facing the nation just three weeks out from the presidential election, recent stimulus talks have shown little sign of movement toward an agreement as Pelosi—whose chamber has passed two sweeping relief bills that Senate Republicans immediately rejected out of hand—continues to criticize the White House's $1.8 trillion offer as woefully inadequate.

In a heated interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer late Tuesday, Pelosi brushed aside calls from Khanna and others to work with the Trump administration's $1.8 trillion proposal and put the onus on Senate Republicans to accept the major aid package or reject it—and potentially face backlash for doing so.

"Ro Khanna, that's nice. That isn't what we're going to do, and nobody is waiting until February," Pelosi said, dismissing her fellow Californian's warning that failure to pass relief before November 3 could delay aid until after the inauguration of the next president.

"I want this very much now, because people need help now," Pelosi continued. "But it's no use giving them a false thing just because the president wants to put a check with his name on it in the mail."

Khanna has previously made clear—and made clear once more to Common Dreams on Wednesday—he's not recommending that Democrats dispense with legitimate criticisms of the White House offer and blindly accept what Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has placed in front of them.

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Rather, Khanna stressed the substantial upsides of the $1.8 trillion proposal and argued that the points of contention—such as disagreements over funding for coronavirus testing—can be worked out. As it stands, the $1.8 trillion plan would provide a $400-per-week boost to unemployment insurance, $300 billion in aid to state and local governments, and another round of $1,200 stimulus checks to most U.S. adults—plus an additional $1,000 per child.

"If people don't believe that government is going to help their lives, if there is mass cynicism, that's going to lead to apathy in terms of turnout, and it's going to lead more broadly to apathy in terms of any progressive agenda."
—Rep. Ro Khanna

Khanna told Common Dreams that he has heard the two sides have "negotiated language" on corporate liability provisions but said he has not seen that language. The White House and GOP push for sweeping liability protections for corporations has been criticized by Democratic lawmakers, consumer advocacy groups,and small business owners as an attempt to immunize large companies that expose their workers and customers to Covid-19.

"At the end of the day, I have a lot of faith in the American people and I believe that if you do the right thing the politics sort themselves out," Khanna said, adding that there is "no doubt in my mind" additional stimulus makes sense from an economic standpoint.

Emphasizing that millions of people across the U.S. are "struggling to keep their house, struggling to provide nutritious food for their kids, struggling to see the restaurant that they spent 20 years building stay open," Khanna said, "We have to provide them with relief."

According to recent data from the Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey, around 78 million U.S. adults are having difficulty affording basic expenses like food and rent as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the economy.

"I believe that if we do the right thing, we will help not just our cause in November, but more importantly restore people's faith in government," said the California Democrat.

"If people don't believe that government is going to help their lives, if there is mass cynicism, that's going to lead to apathy in terms of turnout, and it's going to lead more broadly to apathy in terms of any progressive agenda," he added. "It is in the interest of progressive Democrats to show that government can be a force of good, and this is the time for us to act."

With the window to reach a deal rapidly shrinking as the election draws nearer, Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke once more on Wednesday to negotiate specifics of the relief package. During an event following his conversation with Pelosi, Mnuchin said, "At this point, getting something done before the election and executing on that would be difficult, just given where we are."

Drew Hammill, Pelosi's deputy chief of staff, wrote in a series of tweets that "the two spent time seeking clarification on language, which was productive."

"One major area of disagreement continues to be that the White House lacks an understanding of the need for a national strategic testing plan," said Hammill. "The Speaker believes we must reopen our economy and schools safely and soon, and scientists agree we must have a strategic testing plan. Staff will continue to exchange paper and the two principals will speak again tomorrow."

New York magazine's Eric Levitz argued Tuesday that taking into account both political considerations and the disastrous state of the U.S. economy, Pelosi "has little to lose from passing the White House's $1.8 trillion offer, and putting it in McConnell's lap."

"Either his caucus will fold, and the U.S. economy will receive much-needed, timely fiscal support, or it will collapse into politically damaging in-fighting," Levitz wrote. "Given the costs of further delay—both to unemployed Americans who need financial assistance now, and to the prospects of passing any relief before Election Day—Pelosi should accept the White House's offer posthaste (and pray that it isn't already too late)."

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