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WASHINGTON – Two days after a federal moratorium on evictions expired, President Joe Biden's administration scrambled Monday to find a solution, urging landlords to hold off on evictions and calling on states and cities to pursue their own policies to keep renters in their homes.
The White House said the administration asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday to "consider once again" using executive action to extend the moratorium. But the CDC still believes it lacks the legal authority, even for a targeted moratorium affecting only areas where COVID-19 cases are increasing the most.
"The president has not only kicked the tires, he has double-, triple-, quadruple-checked," said Gene Sperling, a White House senior adviser who is overseeing Biden's American Rescue Plan implementation.
Biden has faced a growing backlash from progressive Democrats after the Democrat-controlled House adjourned for recess last week without taking action on a bill that would have renewed the moratorium. It comes as the rise in the coronavirus delta variant has stoked new fears about a resurging pandemic.
In rare discord with his own party, Biden faced new pressure to act after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democratic leaders on Sunday urged the White House to extend the moratorium despite legal concerns.
Over the past year, the CDC extended the moratorium meant to help Americans struggling to pay rent during the pandemic three times. But the White House now says only Congress can extend the evictions freeze after the Supreme Court ruled in June that the CDC overstepped its authority when it created the policy.
"The president’s focus is for us to do everything within our power, or I should say everything within anyone's power, to help prevent unnecessary and avoidable, and painful, evictions," Sperling said.
Instead of evicting tenants unable to make their payments, the White House urged landlords to hold off for 30 days and seek federal emergency rental assistance to be compensated. Biden and Democrats have called attention to $46.5 billion approved by Congress this year for rental assistance that state and local governments have been slow to spend.
Biden called on all states and cities to enact their own moratoriums on evictions for the next two months. One out of every three renters behind in their rent live in states that already have protections against evictions during the pandemic. "The rest of the states should follow course by also extending eviction moratoria," the White House said.
The White House also urged utility providers to avoid cutting off services for those behind in payments by accessing emergency rental aid. And at the request of Pelosi, the Biden administration said it will examine why states and cities have failed to distribute rental assistance.
Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., and several other progressive lawmakers have camped outside on the U.S. Capitol steps since Friday to call for the House to reconvene to take action to extend it.
Biden made his first public appeal for Congress to take action to extend the moratorium last Thursday – just two days before it was set to expire and one day before the House was set to adjourn for its August recess.
Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders said in a joint statement that action was needed and "it must come from the administration" as they called on the White House to immediately extend the moratorium.
Pelosi and her colleagues said the virus remains a threat, calling it a "moral imperative" to keep people from losing their homes. But they said "it is clear" the evenly divided Senate won't extend the eviction moratorium, making any effort from the House insufficient and putting the onus on the Biden administration.
"As we urge the White House to act, please note that Congress will work to address any vulnerability to the CDC identified by the courts," Pelosi wrote in a letter to House Democrats on Monday.
In a ruling June 29, a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court allowed the federal eviction moratorium to remain in place through the end of July. But Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh said he provided the fifth vote only because the freeze was about to expire on its own and said any further extension would require congressional authorization.
Although the White House has deferred to Kavanaugh's position, White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not rule out challenging it.
"The president has not given up the option of legal action," she said.
Last week, Psaki said that given the spread of the delta variant, the president "would have strongly supported a decision by the CDC" to further extend the eviction moratorium but "unfortunately" the court made clear this option is no longer available. She called on Congress to extend the eviction moratorium "without delay."
Over the weekend and into Monday, Democrats expressed frustration over inaction on a policy that is popular with their base.
"Somebody dropped the ball," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told NBC News. "It could have been on our end or the president's end. But millions of Americans face eviction, a cruel and devastating experience for many families."
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a leading progressive Democrat, said House Democratic leadership had an opportunity to hold a vote on extending the moratorium last week, but "there was frankly a handful of conservative Democrats in the House that threatened to get on planes rather than hold this vote."
"We have to really just call a spade a spade," she said in an interview Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "We cannot in good faith blame House Republicans when Democrats have the majority."
The congresswoman also singled out the White House for not being clear about its position until it was too late.
"We asked the Biden administration for their stance, and they were not being really forthright about that advocacy and that request until the day before the House adjourned," she said. "The House was put into a needlessly difficult situation."
Contributing: John Fritze. Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Eviction moratorium: Biden White House scrambles to extend relief