Republicans are now fanning out en masse to claim that if Democrats use the “reconciliation” process to move all or parts of Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion economic rescue package by a simple Senate majority, then it will constitute a “betrayal” of his promise to seek “unity.”
Two new reports — one from the New York Times, and the other from Politico — neatly capture the absurdity of this spin. As the Times notes, Biden is reaching out to Republicans for support for his rescue package, which includes $1,400 stimulus checks, extended unemployment insurance and large expenditures to scale up a national coronavirus response, among many other things.
At the same time, however, Democrats are also preparing for the likelihood that very few Republicans will support the package or anything close to it. If fewer than 10 GOP senators do, it will get filibustered, meaning Democrats would try to use reconciliation instead.
This is causing great outrage among Republicans. We’re seeing quotes like this:
“Covid relief presents the best avenue for bipartisanship right out of the gate,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia and a member of the bipartisan group. Ramming a bill through reconciliation, she added, “is a signal to every Republican that your ideas don’t matter, and I think — does that end it? No, but it certainly puts a color on it.”
Meanwhile, GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is calling on Biden to put the brakes on reconciliation to show that he’s “sincere in his commitment to bipartisanship.”
And GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota insists that Republican senators who had previously negotiated a bipartisan rescue package last year now feel “betrayed."
As many have noted, Republicans used reconciliation twice when they had total control in 2017, most notably in a failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act amid an outpouring of anger across the country. What grounds do Republicans have to complain about its use now?
But there’s a more fundamental question to ask here: What, exactly, could 10 Republican senators support?
A sucker’s game
Without an answer to that question, these GOP process objections are substantively meaningless. If 10 GOP senators won’t support some sort of package of aid, then it can’t pass. Even if Capito or Collins or a handful of others — say, those who negotiated the bipartisan package last time — are willing to support some sort of reasonable compromise, it still couldn’t pass.
Until we know that 10 GOP senators are willing to support something remotely close to what Biden and Democrats want, there simply isn’t anything to talk about. What’s the Republican plan? There isn’t one. With whom are Democrats supposed to negotiate? Over what, exactly?
Let’s go out on a limb and suggest that Republicans would like to keep things this way for as long as possible. They want the public debate to unfold in a place where they get to refrain from saying what they’re for — that is, refrain from saying what they’re prepared to concede to Democrats — while simultaneously attacking Democrats for not being willing to concede enough to them.
That’s a sucker’s game, and Democrats shouldn’t play it. Which is why Democrats appear to be preparing to use reconciliation. HuffPost reports on two Democratic responses to GOP complaints:
“Cry me a river,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told HuffPost.“I can guarantee you, no one back home cares. They just want their relief,” added Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
The insight that voters will judge Democrats by the scale of what they deliver on, and not on whether they achieve bipartisan cooperation for its own sake, suggests Democrats have learned the lessons of 2009 and 2010.
It’s possible, of course, that objections from moderate Democrats will force down the size of the package. That would be a drag, but at least in that case, we’ll see actual negotiations, in which those moderates will be saying what they want, Biden and liberal Democrats will be insisting on more, and they’ll try to reach a compromise.
Thus far, nothing like this is unfolding from the GOP side. And Democrats seem to be acting accordingly.
Aim big, Democrats
There’s a deeper political point here. As Neil Irwin reports, economists now believe the lesson of the last recession is that we should aim higher with stimulus spending, not lower. Falling short risks causing more suffering, even as potentially overheating the economy doesn’t have the downside risks that many previously assumed.
Republicans oppose more spending now out of fake concerns about deficits, just as they did to cripple the last recovery under the last Democratic president. But during the Trump presidency, they were happy to support deficit-financed stimulus.
The crucial point is that Trump benefited politically from that. He may have lost reelection, but his economic approval remained high, and if the coronavirus hadn’t shattered the economy, he very well might have won.
So Biden and Democrats appear to be aiming high, even if it means Republicans will claim he isn’t being “bipartisan.” Does anyone think voters will care about process posturing if the economy recovers successfully? Of course they won’t. And until Republicans want to genuinely join the conversation about how to make that happen, no one is obliged to pretend they’re contributing anything to it.