The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans just handed Biden a good reason to go big — without them

Power is shifting in the Senate as the Biden administration tries to negotiate a new round of coronavirus relief measures. (Video: The Washington Post)

Ten Senate Republicans are unveiling their own scaled-down economic rescue plan — with the transparent aim of getting President Biden to negotiate away his own ambitions. The game they’re playing runs as follows: If Biden doesn’t make all kinds of concessions in their direction, they suggest, he’ll be reneging on his promise to pursue “unity.”

But this argument has now been badly undercut by none other than Republicans themselves.

In an important new piece, the New York Times reports that Republican operatives are openly boasting of their intention to ramp up efforts to gerrymander House districts during this year’s decennial redistricting.

The upshot of that report: It’s plausible that Democrats could lose the House in 2022 largely on the strength of GOP partisan gerrymandering.

If so, then it seems obvious that Biden and Democrats cannot seriously trim their agenda for the sake of achieving bipartisanship for its own sake. If Democrats do lose the House, Biden’s agenda screeches to a halt.

It would be the ultimate perversity if this were to happen due to GOP gerrymandering after Biden significantly downscaled his agenda in search of bipartisan comity. If Republicans are threatening to take back the House through a nakedly partisan exercise of counter-majoritarian tactics — and if there’s a decent chance they’ll succeed — it furnishes a good reason for Biden and Democrats to do as much as they can right now, with or without Republicans.

The GOP proposal is a joke

The counterproposal from the 10 Republicans would total around $600 billion — less than one third of Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan. It would slice down the stimulus checks from Biden’s proposed $1,400 to $1,000, while phasing them out for higher incomes much faster.

The GOP plan would also offer only $300 in weekly supplemental unemployment assistance, and only through June. Biden’s plan would offer $400 through September — so under the GOP plan, the White House would have to ask Congress to renew the payments in a few months.

And the GOP proposal does not contain any aid to state and local governments. That makes it a nonstarter for Democrats, who want to direct federal help to them avoid layoffs and service cutbacks that could grind down the recovery.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Biden has agreed to meet with the 10 GOP senators. But Democrats are nonetheless laying the groundwork to pass their package through the “reconciliation” process by simple majority.

Whatever the real goal of this GOP proposal — given its paltry scale, it’s probably meant to create the impression that Republicans would do something at a time of multiple crises, while giving them a way to claim Biden is reneging on his “unity” promise — Democrats simply can’t chase them down this rabbit hole.

Here comes the gerrymandering

The coming wave of GOP gerrymanders underscores the point. As the Times report details, Republicans retain total control of redistricting in 18 states, and they might be able to win the House largely through such gerrymandering:

“I would say that the national vote could be the same as this year two years from now, and redistricting by itself would easily be enough to alter who controls the chamber,” said Samuel S. Wang, the director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. He estimated that reapportionment alone could net the Republicans three seats, and gerrymandering in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida another five seats.
With Democrats holding a 222-211 edge, Republicans would probably need to flip just six seats to win back the majority.

To be sure, Democrats might still hold the House despite GOP gerrymandering, or alternatively they might lose it because they perform worse than in 2020. And one might note that Democrats are in this predicament in part due to 2020 downballot failures: They lost House seats and failed to make gains in state legislatures where redistricting was at stake.

But still, the mere fact that Republicans are threatening to recapture the House with souped up counter-majoritarian tactics itself should warn Democrats off of negotiating away their proposal in search of securing bipartisanship.

Learning the right lessons

Democrats do appear to have learned some of the lessons of 2009 to 2010. They have concluded that delivering on a bold agenda — even without any GOP support — is the way to restore faith in government and democracy and win public credit.

What’s more, they are vowing not to get lured by the GOP siren song of false promises of cooperation, which they now admit led them to scale down their ambitions. The too-small stimulus package secured backing from three GOP senators while holding back the recovery.

But still another lesson of those years is that failing to spur a strong enough recovery might have helped cost Democrats the House — which then compounded itself by locking in years of brutal fiscal trench warfare, holding back the recovery (and wounding Democrats) further.

“Democrats can’t assume we will have bite after bite at the apple, particularly with Republican state legislatures working overtime to entrench minority rule through redistricting,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), told me in an emailed statement. "The only surefire way to prevent economic sabotage is to pass the bold economic relief that’s needed now.”

Wyden noted that Democrats have seen Republicans run this playbook before. “We’re not going to allow them to run it again,” he said.

Democrats have already learned from those years that securing bipartisanship in exchange for trimmed ambitions does not necessarily stave off midterm losses. And the idea that outreach to Republicans will somehow reduce the GOP’s addiction to counter-majoritarian tactics is pure fantasy: The past few months confirm that Republicans will only double down on them.

Indeed, now that Republicans are openly proclaiming their renewed commitment to such tactics to ensure those midterm losses, negotiating down in the quest for that support would be even more absurd and self-destructive. Not to mention terrible for the country.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Democrats need to accept the implications of GOP radicalization

Katrina vanden Heuvel: The fight to revive democracy has only just begun

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Democrats are faced with a choice. Protect the filibuster or protect democracy.

The Post’s View: Wisconsin lawmakers show us how not to fix the electoral college

Kathleen Parker: The GOP isn’t doomed. It’s dead.