But Wicker, like every other Republican in Congress, did not vote for the bill. Asked why he opposed the bill if the money for restaurants was important, an exasperated Wicker said, “One good provision in a $1.9 trillion bill doesn’t mean I have to vote for the whole thing.”
Wicker’s justification reflects the difficulty Republicans are having in finding a message to counter the popularity of the legislation. By the time next year’s elections are in full swing, Republicans say they hope the law’s popularity will have diminished and that it will be seen as less about addressing the pandemic and more as a backdoor way by the Democrats to expand government.
In 2009, Republicans quickly coalesced around a unified message about President Barack Obama’s stimulus, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act: It was too big and too generous to the undeserving — building on public furor over the Wall Street bailouts passed months before. The perception of out-of-control Washington spending fueled the rise of the tea party and sparked years of GOP support for fiscal restraint.
But today, Republicans increasingly are uncomfortable placing austerity at the center of their national message, given the scale of the national economic crisis and their vulnerability to charges of hypocrisy. The party embraced deficit-inducing tax cuts and spending increases during the Trump administration.
For now, Democrats are crowing about its passage, and Republicans are working to mount a coherent response that resonates.
“Unfortunately, Republicans, as I say, ‘Vote no and take the dough,’ ’’ House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday. “You see already some of them claiming, ‘Oh, this is a good thing or that’s a good thing,’ but they couldn’t give it a vote” of approval.
The law includes $1,400 checks for those making under $80,000, enhanced unemployment benefits and a child tax credit for families with children under 17 years of age. It also includes tens of billions of dollars to fund coronavirus testing, contact tracing and vaccine deployment.
Wicker’s provision for restaurants is part of the $65 billion directed to industries hurting amid the pandemic, including transportation.
Airlines rejoiced ahead of President Biden signing the bill into law Thursday, with United and American airlines noting the stimulus package would help save a combined 27,000 employees they warned would have been laid off in the coming weeks.
A recent poll released by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center showed that 70 percent of Americans support the pandemic relief bill, including 41 percent of those who are Republican or lean Republican.
The difficulty of driving a coherent message against a bill that will deliver potentially thousands of dollars to most American families was on display this week.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), the No. 2 House GOP leader, attacked the bill to reporters as “one more example of Speaker Pelosi pushing a socialist agenda that’s focused on taking away the rights of hard-working families.” Then Scalise dodged a question about whether the bill’s expansion of the child tax credit, which will send monthly $300 checks to many families, constituted socialism.
Without denigrating the new child benefit, Scalise said that Democrats “took advantage of the crisis to fill the bill with primarily things that have nothing to do with covid that should have been discussed separately.”
To be sure, many Republicans have decried the budgetary implications of the bill, but it has not been a centerpiece of the GOP attacks. Instead, they have offered a grab bag of objections to the Democratic bill.
In the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and others have sought to paint it as a “progressive payoff” to the furthest-left members of the Democratic coalition and one that does not do enough to reopen closed schools.
In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and his allies have trained on the partisan approach Democrats adopted to pass the bill and have seized on its outsize benefits to majority-Democratic states.
Congressional Republicans also want to prevent voters from crediting the American Rescue Plan for the expected economic boom this spring and summer when most Americans are vaccinated.
McConnell and McCarthy said Wednesday that any economic recovery should be credited to previously passed bipartisan stimulus bills that more directly targeted the pandemic, rather than the Democratic-only approved bill that includes numerous other provisions.
While the relief plan may be popular now, Republican strategists say that public reaction to legislation often fades over time. That will allow Republicans to expose other elements of the sweeping bill that the White House touts as “the most progressive bill in American history” — a line that fits right into Republican claims of “far-left socialism.”
Calvin Moore, spokesman for the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund and American Action Network, said voters are just seeing “the tip of the iceberg” of the massive, roughly 630-page plan and predicts that “support will drop as time goes on and voters uncover more about what this bill actually does.”
Many Republicans contend their best bet is focusing on relatively small parts of the bill that fit more neatly into long-standing GOP culture war narratives, including amendment votes that allow stimulus checks to go to incarcerated prisoners (much like previous relief bills) and families with immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
At a Senate lunch Wednesday, Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.) presented GOP colleagues with polling data assembled by the National Republican Senatorial Committee that painted a clear picture, according to Republicans familiar with the presentation: The Democratic bill is popular, but the Democratic larger agenda has significant political vulnerabilities, particularly with respect to immigration and rights for transgender Americans.
Republicans already are playing up how the law allots $350 billion in aid to state governments in states with high unemployment. Republicans say that benefits the “elites” living in New York and California, the two states that Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Pelosi represent, respectively. California, which is strongly Democratic, will receive the most state government aid, but Texas, which is strongly Republican, will receive the next largest share.
Before the bill was signed into law, the conservative American Action Network previewed future attacks. It launched phone calls and digital ads across 11 House districts that emphasized how Democrats “hijacked” bipartisan discussions to pass a radical bill, including “longtime socialist wish list items, like a bailout for blue states and benefits for illegal immigrants, while refusing to safely reopen America’s schools.”
One of their ads targeted Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), who was the only Democrat to vote against the bill Wednesday.
The White House is also trying to figure out how to sell the plan. Biden said repeatedly on the campaign trail that a reason the Affordable Care Act lost popularity during the 2010 midterm elections was President Barack Obama did not do enough to remind the public of its strong points.
Biden is expected to embark on a cross-country tour to sell the rescue plan to voters, including a trip to Pennsylvania scheduled for Tuesday.
The House Majority Forward, which supports Democrats, is helping by investing $1.4 million in TV ads across nine congressional swing districts over the next week to tout the members who helped the legislation pass.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Scott chairs, on Thursday announced its first ads targeting the Democratic law. The ads highlight the votes to send stimulus checks to unsavory recipients, as well as funding that could reach Planned Parenthood, liberal states such as New York and California, and so-called sanctuary cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
“In nineteen months, those $1,400 checks are going to be long gone but Democrats’ socialist agenda will still be on the top of voters’ minds,” said Michael McAdams, communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee.