PRESIDENT BIDEN made two big promises on his way to election last November, both of which he reiterated in his inaugural address. The first was to restore national unity, not in the sense of eliminating the two parties’ differences, but in the sense of restoring their ability to debate them respectfully. The second was to end the crisis brought on by covid-19. Mr. Biden treated these goals as mutually reinforcing. He left the door to bipartisan lawmaking open even after Democrats captured both houses in Congress.
To be sure, there are some — including many in Mr. Biden’s own party — who regard the post-Donald Trump Republican Party as a corrupted institution with which it is not only morally questionable but also practically impossible to do business. And they have a point: Long before Mr. Trump’s presidency, and long before the appalling insurrection of his supporters on Jan. 6, GOP lawmakers often dangled cooperation toward Democratic initiatives such as Obamacare, only to withdraw it like Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown. Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have to earn back trust.
Nevertheless, there is a risk in overlearning the lessons of such past episodes, especially given the 50-50 Senate, with one or two Democratic moderates in the middle. Mr. Biden’s aspiration remains the right one, even after an increasingly partisan week. Democrats laid the legal basis for passing Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion covid relief plan on a party-line basis, via the reconciliation process; that was followed by a Senate “vote-arama” featuring Republican amendments on made-for-campaign-ad issues such as aid to undocumented immigrants — and that was followed by a tough statement from Mr. Biden that he will not “compromis[e] on a bill that’s not up to the crisis.”
Those paying close attention, however, perceived that not all was conflictual: Mr. McConnell sided with those repudiating Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.); the president and 10 moderate Republicans both say there should be $160 billion for public health needs such as vaccines. Mr. Biden and a bipartisan majority of the Senate have accepted, in principle, that there should be tighter income eligibility for $1,400 direct payments. By voice vote, the Senate decided to wait until after the pandemic to take up Mr. Biden’s controversial $15 minimum wage proposal.
In short, last week’s action on the Senate floor and in the White House may be the inevitable posturing before a negotiation process that has not been foreclosed, and which could yet produce a package between $618 billion and $1.9 trillion (closer to the latter, we would hope) capable of getting 60 votes in the Senate. Certainly the benefits for Mr. Biden of not giving up on such a result outweigh the risks. Moderates in both parties have some good ideas: Limiting the direct payments was one; making future stimulus contingent on objective indicators, such as the unemployment rate, could be another. Giving them a genuine hearing — and exhausting the possibilities for compromise, even if it fails — would enhance the legitimacy of a party-line bill when and if that becomes unavoidable. This is the approach that got Mr. Biden elected, because voters, correctly, bet that it would be the healthiest one for the country.
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