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Congress Goes on Vacation, Letting Eviction Moratorium Expire Amid Delta Surge

Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley slept outside the U.S. Capitol building to demand that the House reconvene.

Rep. Cori Bush speaks with supporters as she spends the night outside the U.S. Capitol to call for for an extension of the federal eviction moratorium on July 31, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

After many of their fellow Democratic lawmakers skipped town for a weeks-long vacation, Reps. Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley slept outside the U.S. Capitol building Friday night to demand that the House immediately reconvene and pass an extension of the soon-to-expire national eviction moratorium.

With the reprieve set to lapse on Saturday, House Democratic leaders scrambled to pull their caucus together at the last-minute to pass legislation that would extend the moratorium until the end of 2021.

But the effort, spurred by the Biden administration’s refusal to act on its own, ultimately fizzled out as a number of centrist Democrats made clear they would rather leave Washington, D.C. for August recess than work to prolong the moratorium, which is shielding millions of people across the U.S. from potentially imminent eviction.

A parallel effort by Senate Democrats has also failed to get off the ground.

“Earlier Friday afternoon, top Democrats began floating an alternative that they hoped would pick up votes from the moderate wing of their caucus — an extension of just over three months, rather than six months — on what is likely to be the House’s final task before departing for its lengthy August recess,” Politico reported. “But moderates remained unconvinced.”

Because House Democratic leaders attempted to pass a moratorium extension using a procedure known as unanimous consent, a single Republican objection—in this case from Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.)—was enough to block the legislation. There was no full vote in the chamber, so centrist Democrats did not have to go on the record opposing an extension.

The House is not scheduled to return to session until September 20.

Bush (D-Mo.), who was formerly unhoused as a mother of two, expressed outrage that many of her Democratic colleagues “chose to go on vacation early today rather than staying to vote to keep people in their homes.”

“That the House suddenly adjourned this evening without a roll call vote on Chairwoman Waters’ legislation is a moral failure,” Bush wrote in a letter to House Democrats on Friday, referring to Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D-Calif.) bill to extend the eviction ban. “I have been unhoused and evicted. I’ve slept in my car and slept outdoors. I know what it’s like, and I wouldn’t wish that trauma on anyone.”

“I’m prepared to do whatever it takes, including staying in Washington and demanding that the House vote on H.R. 4791,” Bush continued. “I cannot in good conscience leave Washington tonight while a Democratic-controlled government allows millions of people to go unhoused as the Delta variant is ravaging our communities. Millions of people are about to lose their homes and, as Democrats, we must not give up on the chance to save their lives.”

The Missouri Democrat went on to invite her colleagues to join her in sleeping outside the Capitol, but just two lawmakers — Pressley and Omar — heeded the call, along with a number of activists.

First implemented by the CDC in September, the federal eviction moratorium is set to expire as more than 10 million tenants across the country are behind on rent and relief funds appropriated by Congress to help at-risk households remain largely unspent.

“Six months after the aid program was approved by President Donald Trump in December, just 12% of the first $25 billion in funds had reached people in need due to loss of income from the pandemic,” the Washington Post reported Friday. “More than three months after President Biden signed a March relief package with another $21.5 billion for the program, even less of that has been spent.”

Housing advocates have warned that a wave of evictions, while unacceptable at any time, would be especially perilous in the current moment, given the nationwide spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. While renters in Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Illinois, and a handful of other states will still be protected by temporary eviction bans after the national moratorium expires on Saturday, experts have argued that federal action is necessary to prevent a looming housing disaster.

“Without immediate action, millions of these households will be at risk of losing their homes and their ability to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy,” National Low Income Housing Coalition and other organizations wrote in a letter (pdf) to congressional leaders on Thursday. “The newly surging Delta variant, low vaccination rates in communities with high eviction filings, and the slow rate of distributing [Emergency Rental Assistance] make the necessity of an extension abundantly clear.”

The letter came hours after the Biden White House asked Congress to pass legislation to extend the moratorium — just three days before it was set to expire. In a statement Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki insisted that the Biden administration cannot unilaterally prolong the moratorium due to a recent Supreme Court ruling — a justification that many questioned.

“The CDC could extend the eviction moratorium right now,” argued Kriston Capps, a staff writer for City Lab. “It would almost certainly be struck down, but it would take time for a challenge to reach the Supreme Court. Instead the White House punted to Congress but with very little time to reach a deal.”

From the front of the U.S. Capitol, Bush tweeted Saturday morning that the House could have passed an extension in time, “but some Democrats went on vacation instead.”

“We slept at the Capitol last night to ask them to come back and do their jobs,” Bush added. “Today’s their last chance. We’re still here.”

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