Even by Washington standards, the past two weeks have been ugly. The country’s coronavirus death toll surpassed 150,000. National data showed a record-breaking economic plunge. And lawmakers allowed two of the central federal programs designed to keep Americans afloat during this unprecedented crisis—$600 supplemental unemployment checks and a federal eviction moratorium—to unceremoniously expire.
After more than a week of partisan bickering on the Hill, leaders in Washington failed to reach even a glimmer of a consensus on a new relief package. While House Democrats passed a bill in May that extended both the supplemental unemployment checks and the eviction moratorium, Congressional Republicans dismissed the $3 trillion proposal out of hand. But in the intervening months, the Republicans’ chief negotiators—Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows—have been hamstrung by competing demands from factions within their own party and failed to offer a workable alternative. (Aside from briefings by the White House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has removed himself from the negotiations entirely, promising to cobble together Republican Senate votes after an agreement is reached.)
Despite very little progress on a bill, leaders in both parties say they hope to pass something next week. “We agree that we want to have an agreement,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday after meeting with Mnuchin and Meadows. “And in that case, we then say that’s our goal, let’s engineer back from there as to what we have to do to get that done.”
Inside Washington, the stalemate has played out predictably, with each party bitterly blaming the other. But outside Washington — and especially in the nation’s most purple regions — Republican, Democratic, and Independent voters described their frustration in notably non-partisan terms. They appear to point the finger at both Democrats and Republicans, and the federal government writ large.
“We’re sort of stuck in between two arguing parents,” said Helena, a voter from Pueblo, Colorado who said she was a registered Independent, at a July 31 virtual event hosted by Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner. “One side doesn’t want to do what the other side wants to do simply because the other side suggests it. At least that’s what it feels like.”
Between July 31 and August 4, TIME dialed into five telephone town halls all hosted by lawmakers facing tough reelection campaigns: Gardner, as well as Reps. Anthony Brindisi of New York, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Abby Finkenauer of Iowa and Chip Roy of Texas. More than 11,000 voters dialed in collectively, according to statistics compiled from three of the five offices. (Gardner and Finkeanuer’s did not respond to request for comment). Despite spanning five states, each of which is facing different coronavirus infection rates and varying economic stagnation, one theme was abundantly clear: neither party is winning politically from this hold-up.
“Most Americans don’t understand why you can’t have at least enough agreement about the need to move forward on another relief package to get some agreement,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “This is the kind of disagreement where voters basically say ‘a pox on both your houses’ until something happens.”
In an apparent effort to combat this weariness, all of the lawmakers in question stressed to their constituents the need for Republicans and Democrats to quickly reach an agreement, while simultaneously lamenting the gridlock. “I am disgusted by the petty partisan politics going on while our local communities continue to struggle,” said Brindisi, a Democrat whose upstate New York district voted for Trump by 15 points in 2016, at the outset of the call.
In his call, Gardner noted that the non-partisan Lugar Center had ranked him the third most bi-partisan Senator this year, while Roy touted his bipartisan work with Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips on fixes to the Paycheck Protection Program that Trump signed into law in June.
But these actions and sentiments didn’t insulate the lawmakers from their constituents’ frustrations. “What is the major holdup?” a voter asked Brindisi during the question and answer session. “Why are the [leaders in Congress] acting like the money is coming out of their pockets?”
A constituent on Cunningham’s call, who said he was a Democrat, announced that he was “embarrassed” to identify with the party after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeatedly rebuffed Republicans’ offers last week to pass a short-term stop-gap bill that would just extend unemployment benefits. “Why couldn’t they have just passed a week of unemployment the way it was offered [by Republicans] so they can continue negotiations?” he asked. “But no, they want to have people suffer.”
Schumer and Pelosi have said several times that passing any short-term extension would be effectively be meaningless, since the benefits already expired. Cunningham noted that Democrats had been working on the details of a relief package for weeks, but that finger pointing at either party is never helpful. Brindisi, meanwhile, pointed to his support for the Heroes Act, the $3 trillion relief package House Democrats passed in May that McConnell refused to vote on and Democrats are now using as a negotiating tool. But he conceded that there are fundamental “sticking points” that need to be hashed out before an agreement can be reached.
In an interview with TIME on Wednesday, Brindisi said he was frustrated by his inability to give his constituents the answers they wanted. “You have essentially six people talking right now about the COVID relief package,” he says. “We certainly need more input from rank and file members and people in Congress who are interested in getting things done.”
A key sticking point between Congressional Republicans and Democrats is a proposed extension of the $600/week enhanced unemployment insurance. The Democrats’ proposal would extend the benefits, at the current rate, through January. But Republicans want a lower weekly sum, arguing that $600/week creates a disincentive to work.
On that question, voters in the town halls had competing points of view. A massage therapist who dialed into Cunningham’s town hall begged for an immediate reinstatement of these benefits, calling them a “lifeline” that kept her afloat as her business stagnated. When Finkenauer polled voters at her town-hall about the program, 76 percent said an extension was “very important.” But a man in Brindisi’s district said the benefits were unfair to workers who remained employed but whose job puts them in danger. “The essential workers essentially got screwed over,” he said, arguing that they were risking their health while making less than the unemployed workers staying home. ”What is being done for the essential worker to help that disparaging difference between those?”
Brindisi pointed out to constituents that one of reasons he supported the Heroes Act was the $200 billion it allotted in hazard pay to supplement these workers’ incomes, but that Senate Republicans are not receptive to the idea. On unemployment insurance, he said he was hopeful for a compromise. “People aren’t really concerned if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, they just want leaders in Washington working together getting things done,” he said in the Wednesday interview. “There are real needs out there.”
“People want answers,” he added. “And they want their leaders to solve these problems.”