The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden is repeating Obama’s first mistake

President Biden departs after speaking in the South Court Auditorium at the White House on Monday in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Rob Portman, a Republican, represents Ohio in the U.S. Senate.

Our country seems more divided along partisan lines than at any time I can remember. That’s why I was pleased to hear President Biden encourage bipartisanship in his inaugural address. I agree with his statement that, at “our historic moment of crisis and challenge ... unity is the path forward.” Unfortunately, that rhetoric has not yet been matched by action.

Most disappointing is the partisan approach the new administration is taking to the covid-19 pandemic, one of the few areas where there has been real bipartisanship over the past year. We know covid policy can be bipartisan, because Congress already passed five laws appropriating more than $4 trillion with huge bipartisan majorities. The most recent $900 billion package passed at the end of December by a vote of 92 to 6.

The basis for this year-end legislation came from a bipartisan group of five Democrats and five Republicans who worked over several weeks to come up with the $900 billion consensus package. As a member of that group, I am convinced we can find that common ground again.

Yet the new administration has chosen to go around Republicans this time, not just by proposing a huge $1.9 trillion package with no consultation with any Republican — or Democrat — in the bipartisan working group, but also by trying to pass the $1.9 trillion plan under reconciliation, bypassing the normal 60-vote Senate margin. In a 50-50 Senate, Democrats seem determined to proceed without a single Republican vote.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Trying to find a way forward together, I worked with nine of my Republican Senate colleagues over the past month to develop a targeted $618 billion covid-19 response proposal that can gain significant bipartisan support. Our plan focuses on priorities we share with the president, including providing the same increase in funding for producing and distributing vaccines; offering economic relief for Americans with the greatest need; extending enhanced federal unemployment benefits; supporting our small businesses; helping get kids back to school; and addressing the drug addiction epidemic that is a heartbreaking part of the pandemic.

Our approach builds on the $900 billion package that Congress recently passed, barely half of which has been spent thus far.

We were hopeful that the administration would be interested in good-faith negotiations. Instead, administration officials are insisting on provisions that Republicans oppose. For instance, under the Democrats’ plan, stimulus checks will go to a family making up to $200,000 a year, even if they haven’t borne the brunt of the pandemic. The package also includes numerous items that have nothing do with covid-19, amounting to a wish list of Democratic policy priorities.

Many of us also have concerns over the economic effects the Biden administration plan could have on the economy. Prominent Democratic economist Lawrence H. Summers and others have warned that the stimulus in the massive $1.9 trillion plan could overheat an already recovering economy and lead to higher inflation, hurting middle-class families and threatening long-term growth.

Recently, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported that the economy is expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels by midyear without any new stimulus. The consensus among many economists is that even absent any new coronavirus legislation, 2021 will bring higher economic growth and lower unemployment. Instead of adding to our record debt and deficits with a massive $1.9 trillion package that is not justified by the current conditions, we should focus on the most urgent economic and health-care needs of the American people. That’s what our more targeted Republican proposal does.

The Biden administration’s partisan approach repeats the same mistake that Barack Obama made early in his presidency. It sets the wrong tone for the beginning of a new administration and risks undermining other bipartisan efforts going forward.

Past presidents showed they can get big things done early in a new administration by working with both parties. President Bill Clinton famously worked with Republicans in 1993 to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement. President Ronald Reagan’s economic reforms of 1981 passed the Senate by an overwhelming margin of 89 to 11. President George H.W. Bush rallied both parties to support the Americans With Disabilities Act before the two-year mark in his term. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act passed both chambers with widespread support. In contrast, Obama’s first order of business was to ram through a nearly $800 billion stimulus proposal on a nearly party-line basis. There was plenty of partisanship in the Trump administration, but on covid-19 we worked together each time.

Biden faces an early choice. He can act on the hopeful bipartisan rhetoric of his inaugural address — and his presidential campaign — or contradict that message by trying to jam a $1.9 trillion bill through reconciliation with no GOP support. Working together has the benefit of crafting more-targeted policies, while showing a divided country that we can unite at a time of crisis.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Republicans’ incentive on covid relief is gone

Jennifer Rubin: Biden is not the barrier to bipartisanship. Republicans are.

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Jennifer Rubin: What the Republican counteroffer to Biden’s stimulus plan means

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