Our situation today is the mirror image of 2011. Instead of a manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling, we face a real one over a global pandemic. In Washington, the power dynamic is a mirror image, as well: Democrats control the House, while Republicans control the Senate and the presidency. If the Republicans of 2011 could leverage control of the House into a $2.5 trillion bill in response to a fake crisis, it is well within reason for Democrats to hold the line on a bill of similar scale in response to a real crisis.
In 2011, Republicans got what they wanted by making a strong demand and — crucially — sticking to it. In May 2011, months before the August deadline, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) demanded that every dollar that the debt ceiling was increased be matched with a dollar of spending cuts, a standard that became known as the “Boehner rule.” At first, Boehner’s demand was viewed as outrageous. But in the succeeding months, Republicans held the line and got exactly what Boehner demanded.
Today, negotiations over an economic relief package are, as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said late Thursday, in a “knot.” Democrats initially led with a strong bill, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) guiding the Heroes Act to passage on May 15, a $3 trillion bill that includes a six-month extension of a $600 increase in unemployment insurance, another direct payment of up to $6,000 per family and $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service.
Since then, Republicans have failed to coalesce around their own plan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) finally released a proposal earlier this week, only to see it panned by his fellow Republicans — including Trump, who called it “semi-irrelevant.” But rather than responding to Republicans’ disarray by holding the line, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the second-ranking Democrat in the House, signaled weakness on a key demand of the Democrats’ Heroes bill. Asked to respond to arguments espoused by Republicans that the $600 addition to unemployment insurance encourages Americans to shirk work, Hoyer said, “I think that’s an argument that has some validity to it,” and he went on to signal a willingness to reduce the benefit.
But Hoyer — and the rest of his party — have every reason to maintain their course. Democrats have more power than they seem to be acknowledging, thanks to the same dynamic that boosted Republicans in 2011: It takes a majority to pass bills in the House but a supermajority of 60 votes to pass bills in the Senate. This means that McConnell cannot match Pelosi’s Heroes Act with a bill of his own. (The Senate rules requiring a de facto 60-vote threshold are unjust and must change, but that’s a story for another time, and there’s no chance they will change during the current debate over covid-19 aid.)
McConnell can’t pass his plan (or any plan) unless at least seven Democrats support it, and the number of Republicans criticizing it suggests he needs significantly more than that to make up for GOP defections. As long as Democrats hold the line, any bill McConnell proposes will remain on the shelf, and the Heroes Act will remain the only viable bill on the table.
Democrats originally presented Heroes as their opening offer, but worsening conditions in the two months since it was passed have made it credible as a final offer. When Heroes passed on May 15, the virus seemed to be on the decline. The seven-day average of new confirmed coronavirus infections was 23,009 and trending down; today, it is 65,404, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The economy is in much worse shape, too. On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell stated that the spiking number of coronavirus cases is causing a “slowing in the pace of the recovery,” and he practically begged Congress to keep spending. On Thursday, the government reported the largest economic contraction on record. If Republicans had engaged earlier, they might have been able to strike a compromise. But they chose to wait until the last minute. Now the price tag is higher, and they have no one to blame but themselves.
The intervening months have also shown the vital importance of provisions like the $600 in additional unemployment insurance. Far from encouraging Americans to shirk work, it appears to be propping up the economy. As Jason Furman, who chaired President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, has chronicled, the consumer demand it fed has been one of the only factors preventing an all-out economic collapse. Securing that $600 was a major victory for the Democrats’ victory in the last round of aid talks, and it is critical to protect it now.
Given all of this, Democrats could even go on offense to strengthen Heroes. Reopening the bill itself would invite chaos, but they could pass a package of additional measures through the House and attach it to Heroes as a sidecar. Fourteen Democrats voted against Heroes when it passed because they felt it was inadequate, and the sidecar could address their concerns. The bill would be improved, and if stripping out the sidecar turns out to be the concession McConnell or Trump need, then Democrats will be left with the original, an acceptable bottom line.
Walking away from negotiations would be political suicide for Republicans. Trump has threatened to veto Heroes, but Congress recently ignored a different veto threat to send Trump a bill removing Confederate names from military bases, and they should do the same here. Since Trump’s veto threat in May, his political prospects have deteriorated markedly, and the simple reality is that cutting off the aid that millions of Americans rely on would likely doom him in November. The same applies to the more rational McConnell: While it’s possible he could walk away from talks without a deal, it would probably spell the end of his precious majority.
But this is not, nor should it be, a matter of political gamesmanship. It is a moral imperative to save as many lives as possible. Democrats have every reason to play their strong hand as aggressively as possible and go big. Lives and livelihoods are at stake, and every dollar cut from the aid package means fewer will be saved. It is that simple.