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Biden, Pelosi struggle with end of eviction ban

The Hill
The Hill
 2021-08-02
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President Biden and congressional Democrats are locked in a stalemate over who bears responsibility for extending a federal eviction ban that lapsed Sunday.

Millions of Americans are facing homelessness after a push to extend the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) eviction ban collapsed Friday in a mess of Democratic finger-pointing.

After failing to rally enough House Democrats behind a bill to extend the CDC eviction ban, Pelosi and fellow caucus leaders have ramped up pressure on Biden to renew protections amid surging cases.

“The CDC cautioned the difference that the delta variant has made on the pandemic,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) wrote in a Monday letter to House Democrats, invoking the agency’s warning about the new dangers posed by COVID-19.

“As they have called upon the American people to mask up, to be vaccinated and to take other public health precautions, it is critical, in recognition of this urgency, that they extend the eviction moratorium,” she continued.

But Biden administration officials maintained Monday that the CDC could not act without Congress bolstering its authority, if only for a temporary solution.

“The CDC director and her team have been unable to find legal authority, even for a more targeted eviction moratorium, that would focus just on counties with higher rates of COVID spread,” said Gene Sperling, Biden’s economic recovery czar, during a White House briefing Monday.

First imposed in September under former President Trump , the CDC’s eviction moratorium had been extended several times under Biden, most recently on June 24 through July 31. At the time, the CDC said it would not likely extend the eviction ban again amid declining COVID-19 cases and increasing legal threats.

Five days later, on June 29, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the ban — rejecting a challenge from a group of landlords and the Alabama Association of Realtors — but warned that another extension of the moratorium would likely get struck down without clear and specific justification from Congress. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) has also backed other challenges in federal court to the eviction ban, which is also opposed by the National Apartment Association.

In the month since that warning, neither the White House nor Congress took action to bolster the CDC’s eviction ban, even as the delta variant of COVID-19 caused cases to skyrocket, until Biden urged lawmakers Thursday to extend the moratorium two days before it expired.

“It really didn't need to be a mad scramble the way that it has been in Congress,” said Lindsay Wiley, a law professor and director of the health law and policy program at American University.

“After the Supreme Court decision, Congress should have taken action and should have made it among the highest priorities to adopt a legislative fix to this problem, which is really the only thing left on the table,” Wiley added.

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders griped that while Biden gave them little time to coalesce behind a bill, Republicans bore responsibility for the end of the CDC ban. Even if the House passed an extension, it was unlikely to win the support of the 10 GOP senators needed to make it to Biden’s desk.

“The House passing the eviction moratorium without the Senate acting does not extend the moratorium,” Pelosi wrote Monday.

That justification fell flat with progressive lawmakers, who insisted Democrats have no one to blame but themselves with more than a month to prepare and majorities in both chambers of Congress.

“We have to really just call a spade a spade. We cannot in good faith blame the Republican Party when House Democrats have a majority,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in a Sunday interview with CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“This court order came down on the White House a month ago, and the White House waited until the day before the House adjourned to release a statement asking Congress to extend the moratorium,” she added.

Ocasio-Cortez was one of several progressive lawmakers who protested the House’s lack of action by camping on the Capitol steps overnight as the eviction ban lapsed. Others taking part in the effort were Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), and Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who evoked her own experience with homelessness in a letter to colleagues calling for an extension.

Pelosi’s refusal to hold a vote also caused a rare breach with a steadfast ally: Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, who authored a bill to extend the ban through Dec. 31.

“I just thought that we should have fought harder,” Waters told reporters Friday. “I agree that we didn’t have the votes. But what I did not agree to was that we didn’t take it up.”

Roughly 20 moderate House Democrats refused to back an extension of the moratorium, even when the deadline was cut to Oct. 18, the date at which the current federal health emergency order expires. Waters explained in a statement Friday that while she knew the tally was not on her side, she hoped the pressure would prompt a “change of heart” among holdouts.

House Democrats could barely afford any defections with Republicans fiercely opposed to another extension of the eviction ban. GOP lawmakers have argued that the moratorium has run its course with vaccines widely available, job openings at a record high, and most of $46 billion in rental aid still in the hands of state and local governments.

Republicans had also expressed concerns about the financial toll taken on noncommercial landlords—those who rent a spare room or a handful of apartments — and those with tenants who had abused the protection of the ban. Instead, they argued Congress should create an offramp for those in danger of facing eviction when the ban expires instead of kicking the can down the road.

“This is not the way to legislate, and the majority has not done its job to actually do the hearings so that we could move forward on legislation that would be appropriate for this time,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) during an emergency House Rules Committee hearing Friday morning.

“As legislators, we have a responsibility to be doing our jobs to make sure that when an agency has exceeded its authority, we respond,” Rodgers added.

Even so, Pelosi showed no indication Monday of bringing lawmakers back, despite several warnings from Sperling that the White House had exhausted its legal capacity but would continue to find ways around the court’s order.

In a brief statement, Pelosi said she was “hopeful that this initiative to extend the moratorium will be successful as soon as possible,” glossing over what the House would do if Biden did not find a way to renew the ban.

Wiley also warned that another CDC eviction ban issued without clearer authority from Congress could lead to serious consequences for the agency’s pandemic response. If the Supreme Court is asked to overturn the CDC eviction ban, she explained, it may also choose to strike down other orders issued under the same statute, such as the mask mandate for interstate transit and cruise restrictions.

“It's not as straightforward as saying, ‘Well, the CDC should do it anyway and make the Supreme Court own it,’” Wiley said. “It really could have some collateral damage if they did that.”

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