President Biden’s pitch for bipartisan unity to defeat the coronavirus and resurrect the economy is crashing into a partisan buzz saw on Capitol Hill, where Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on ground rules for running the Senate — let alone pass a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill.
In the face of these competing pressures, Biden may discover he can get a big coronavirus stimulus bill or a bipartisan deal — but not both. The path Biden chooses with his first major piece of legislation could set the tone for the remainder of his term, revealing whether he can make good on his promise to unify Congress and the country.
“It’s important that Democrats deliver for America. If the best path to that is to do it in a way that can bring Republicans along, I’m all in favor of that,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said. “But if Republicans want to cut back to the point that we’re not delivering what needs to be done, then we need to be prepared to fight them. Our job is to deliver for the American people.”
Publicly, top aides insist Biden is serious about wanting a bipartisan deal on the relief bill. They say that should be achievable given the magnitude of the economic and health-care crisis besetting the nation a year after the pandemic began, with more than 412,000 dead and the economy newly shedding jobs. Some Democrats have expressed optimism that GOP frustration with how the Trump administration ended could lead some Republicans to be more open to a fresh start with a Democratic president, especially since longtime lawmakers know Biden from his decades in the Senate and as vice president.
But when Biden’s relief plan rang in at nearly $2 trillion this month, and included liberal priorities like an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, some Republicans saw it as a sign that Biden wasn’t really serious about getting their support. Even those Republicans who have suggested they’re open to making a deal have made clear that the package would need to undergo significant changes.
“I suspect the whole package is a nonstarter, but it’s got plenty of starters in it. And a lot of them are things that we proposed in terms of more assistance to the states,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), referring to money for vaccine distribution and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “There’s some things in there that aren’t going to happen. There’s some things that can happen. And that’s how this process should work.”
Outreach to GOP lawmakers before and after the plan’s release appears to have occurred only at the staff level so far and has been confined to a limited number of senators, including members of a bipartisan group who helped break a stalemate over coronavirus relief legislation late last year.
On Sunday, Biden economic adviser Brian Deese is scheduled to directly brief the senators in that group on a Zoom call. But as of Friday, Senate GOP leadership had not been formally briefed, and multiple GOP lawmakers who are part of the bipartisan talks said they had heard nothing from the White House, even though Biden pitched himself on the campaign trail as a bipartisan dealmaker.
“I have not personally [heard from the White House], and I’m disappointed in that, not about me but about, you know, it’s one thing to talk about outreach, another thing to do it,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a senior lawmaker who is a member of the bipartisan group that will confer Sunday with Deese.
“It’s much more successful around here if you try to get the bipartisanship at the start so that it’s a foundation of trust,” Portman added.
Instead, Biden unveiled his $1.9 trillion plan without any bipartisan buy-in, leaving Republicans to question the need for such a big new package coming on the heels of the $900 billion Congress approved in December for economic relief, vaccines and more. Including that legislation, Congress has already devoted about $4 trillion to fighting the pandemic and the economic devastation it wrought.
“I look forward to hearing their views. My own thought is that we should only be spending money where there is need that needs to be met, and so I’d like to see the figures and calculations behind their proposal,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), another member of the bipartisan group. “I think there’s a recognition on both sides of the aisle that where there’s need, we in Congress have a responsibility to help meet that. But we don’t want to be borrowing money that’s not absolutely necessary.”
Questioned about how a nearly $2 trillion package filled with proposals that are anathema to Republicans could be described as a bipartisan overture, White House press secretary Jen Psaki insisted it was.
“Is unemployment insurance only an issue that Democrats in the country want? Do only Democrats want their kids to go back to schools? Do only Democrats want vaccines to be distributed across the country?” Psaki said at a White House news briefing. “He feels that package is designed for bipartisan support.”
She said Biden would be getting personally engaged in finding support for his plan. “He’s very eager to be closely involved, roll up the sleeves … and make the calls himself,” she said.
Psaki said that in trying to sell the package to Republicans, the White House approach would be to ask them which provisions they would cut. The wide-ranging proposal includes a new round of $1,400 stimulus checks to individuals, an extension of and increase in emergency unemployment benefits that would otherwise expire in mid-March, and an enhanced child tax credit, as well as hundreds of billions of dollars to help schools reopen and increase coronavirus testing and vaccine production and delivery.
Some Republicans are open to a number of those provisions but view others — such as the minimum-wage increase — as unrelated to the pandemic and designed to appease an antsy liberal base more than garner bipartisan backing.
“Biden’s opening order was such an overreach that instead of opening negotiations, it just scared Republicans away,” said Brian Riedl, policy expert at the libertarian-leaning Manhattan Institute and a former GOP Senate aide. Riedl said Republicans may be open to a deal somewhere between $500 billion and $1 trillion but that Biden’s opening bid made that less likely. “The opening offer can be so extreme it can poison the well and push the other side away,” he said.
While insisting that Biden’s preference is for a bipartisan deal, Psaki has repeatedly declined to rule out moving forward under special Senate rules that allow legislation to pass with a simple majority vote instead of the 60 votes normally required. That was how President Barack Obama passed key legislation amending the Affordable Care Act and how Republicans passed their massive tax cut early in President Donald Trump’s term. The procedure could allow Biden to pass his coronavirus relief package with only Democratic votes.
But the path forward under this so-called budget reconciliation process could be tricky. The Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, giving Democrats control only because Vice President Harris can cast tie-breaking votes. That means any individual Democratic senator could hold the legislation up with an array of demands.
Also, Senate leaders thus far haven’t even been able to agree on a deal on how to operate the Senate with a 50-50 split, and they’re also still arguing over the timing and process for Trump’s impeachment trial. Both issues are emerging as impediments to Biden getting his Cabinet confirmed and also probably need to get resolved before the Senate could take up a relief bill.
Democrats in Congress and within the White House are split on how much time to devote to trying to strike a bipartisan deal before turning to budget reconciliation and leaving Republicans behind. Biden was vice president when Obama devoted many weeks to futile negotiations with Republicans over the Affordable Care Act, before finally passing the legislation without a single GOP vote. Biden was also involved in negotiations over the $787 billion stimulus bill Obama signed in February 2009 in the throes of the financial crisis. Many Democrats wanted a larger package at the time, but Republicans balked; subsequently, many economists have concluded that a larger stimulus bill would have helped the nation climb out of the Great Recession more quickly.
With that history in mind, budget reconciliation has emerged as the clear preference for many liberal Democrats, especially in the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested in a conversation with donors Thursday evening that she was open to advancing Biden’s proposal via the reconciliation process in coming weeks, according to a person familiar with her remarks. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to confirm the private comments, which were first reported by Punchbowl News.
House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said he wasn’t aware of a final decision on how to proceed but that Democrats were wary of spending too much time negotiating with Republicans at a moment of urgency.
“To haggle over every little provision of Biden’s plan [with Republicans] might not be able to be done on a timely basis,” Yarmuth said.
Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), chair of the New Democrat Coalition, noted that last year Republicans refused for months to pass any additional relief, after a spate of legislation in the spring, before finally agreeing to another bill in December.
“We can’t let that happen again,” DelBene said. “People need certainty and visibility going forward, and that’s why this package is so important.”