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Biden’s ‘unity’ pledge faces major test in push for COVID-19 relief

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Joe Biden and Republicans don't agree what 'unity' looks like


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White House press secretary Jen Psaki says President Joe Biden’s Oval Office meeting with 10 Senate Republicans on a COVID relief package is an opportunity for a bipartisan “exchange of ideas,” but Biden believes the risk is “going too small.” (Feb. 1)

AP Domestic

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden has been unapologetic in his argument that the nation, reeling from twin health and economic crises, is in need of a $1.9 trillion economic boost. 

Senate Republicans, no longer in power but still a formidable force in a chamber split 50-50 between parties, have balked at the proposal’s price tag. A group of 10 senators offered a competing proposal – with about two-thirds less funding than Biden called for.

Less than two weeks after Biden took office, his call for unity faces its first major test as he presses Congress to pass another economic relief package aimed at helping Americans hurting from the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden and the group of 10 Senate Republicans huddled at the White House on Monday to discuss the financial aid package in what press secretary Jen Psaki called “an exchange of ideas.”

Following the two-hour meeting, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told reporters it was a “frank and very useful discussion” with the president and vice president. 

She also tempered expectations. 

“I wouldn’t say that we came together on a package tonight. No one expected that in a two-hour meeting,” she said. They would keep negotiating, she said. 

The number of Republicans involved in the conversation seems not a coincidence: If Democrats want to pass the legislation while avoiding a filibuster, they will need all 50 Senate Democratic votes and 10 from Republicans. The group meeting with Biden, which represents one-fifth of the GOP Senate caucus, spans the ideological spectrum from moderates to ardent conservatives. Some, such as Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah, are known for their ability to work across the aisle and compromise; others, including Sens.Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Todd Young of Indiana, have been more closely allied with former President Donald Trump.

“This is the first real test to see whether or not President Biden is committed to working with congressional Republicans and creating consensus on policy issues,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist with close ties to Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Biden proposal and Republican proposal are about $1.2 trillion apart

Biden is pushing a $1.9 trillion package that includes $1,400 direct payments to millions of Americans, $130 billion to reopen the nation’s schools, $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, $160 billion for vaccine testing and equipment, $50 billion for grants and loans to businesses and a raise in the federal minimum wage to $15 a hour.

Senate Republicans proposed a significantly smaller $618 billion plan that includes $1,000 in direct payments to Americans, $20 billion for reopening schools, $160 billion for vaccine testing and equipment and $50 billion for grants and loans to businesses. The Republican proposal provides no aid to local and state governments, which Democrats consider a priority.

If the White House meeting was intended to hear Republicans out but not work with them toward a deal, “then we’re kind of where we were before the election,” Bonjean said. “Clearly, the (Republican) number is nowhere near what the president wants, but that’s what finding a deal (entails).”

Psaki said Monday that Biden’s meeting with Senate Republicans was “not a forum for the president to make or accept an offer” and stressed that the president believes the size of the relief package “needs to be commensurate with the crisis.”

Jared Bernstein, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, said Biden is sincere when he says he is willing to cooperate with Republicans.

“President Biden is going to fight with every fiber of his being to make sure that an adequately sized rescue plan gets out there,” Bernstein said on MSNBC. “And that is the rescue plan that he has proposed.”

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Biden no stranger to the art of the deal

Biden is no stranger to forging bipartisan deals. As a Democratic senator from Delaware for 36 years and as vice president for eight years under President Barack Obama, Biden was heavily involved in crafting bipartisan agreements on several controversial issues.

In 2011 and 2012, he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., negotiated budget deals that headed off a debt-limit crisis that threatened to send the nation plunging over a fiscal cliff. The second agreement increased taxes on the nation’s highest earners and left in place tax cuts enacted years earlier under President George W. Bush.

Biden frequently cited his experience in the Senate during his campaign for president last year. His ties to the Senate could be helpful as he tries to reach agreement with Republicans on the coronavirus relief package, Bonjean said.

“Biden was the conduit between the Obama administration and the Senate,” Bonjean said. “To have those relationships with senators then and who are still serving is crucial to finding a deal on COVID.”

On Capitol Hill, there might not be much room for compromise.

Many congressional Democrats have called on Biden to push through a large relief package even if he cannot win Republican support.

Democrats warn Republican proposal is ‘far too small’

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters on a conference call last Thursday that $1.9 trillion was the “absolute floor for spending and not the ceiling.”

Democrats have dug in on provisions such as the extension of unemployment benefits and aid for state and local governments. The Republicans’ plan released Monday would extend a $300-per-week federal unemployment benefit through the end of June, rather than through September, as in Biden’s plan.

A key Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is the incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the Republicans’ proposal was “far too small.” Wyden called the proposal’s three-month extension of unemployment benefits a “nonstarter” and too short of an extension for unemployed workers in need of aid.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote a letter with 12 of his Democratic colleagues Monday asking for the next COVID-19 package to include relief for state and local governments. As the Senate debated another round of aid, the senators wrote, “it can leave no state behind.”

“While instances of infection and fatalities vary state-to-state, the economic crisis is felt everywhere,” they said. A $900 billion package passed in December did not include funding for state and local governments.

Republicans generally oppose direct aid for state and local governments, calling the provision a bailout.

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A bipartisan deal would be a political win for Democrats and Republicans, and that should motivate them to compromise, said Kent Syler, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University and a former Democratic congressional aide.

“My guess is they will end up with a COVID relief package in the $1 trillion range,” Syler said. “This amount will be too little for some progressives and too much for some conservatives, but it allows the president to continue to spotlight his leadership in the COVID fight, and it lets moderate GOP senators showcase their willingness to work in a bipartisan fashion.”

Considering his history of negotiating deals with Republicans, Biden “may be more interested in proving he can reach across the aisle to get things done than pleasing progressives,” Syler said.

Do the Democrats have to compromise on the bill? Not exactly

Most legislation in the Senate requires the support of at least 10 Republicans to advance the measure past a procedural hurdle known as the filibuster. If Democrats cannot win Republican support for the package, they could advance legislation through a procedure known as “budget reconciliation,” which would require only a simple majority vote in the Senate.

Reconciliation is a process, introduced in 1974, by which Congress can expedite passage of a bill bringing spending, revenue and debt-limit laws into compliance with fiscal priorities.

The process can be complex, involving committees that must spell out how the requested changes in spending could be “reconciled” with spending or budget limits.

The practical effect is that it allows legislation to pass by a simple majority in the Senate where filibuster rules don’t apply to bills that go through the reconciliation process. That means if all 50 Senate Democrats stick together, they could approve a COVID-19 bill with the help of Vice President Kamala Harris who could cast the tiebreaking 51st vote as president of the Senate.

Republicans and Democrats have used the process to advance major pieces of legislation that might not garner enough bipartisan votes to break a filibuster. Republicans used the reconciliation process in 2017 to push through a major change of the tax code.

House Democrats signaled they could move on the reconciliation process as early as this week, immediately drawing opposition from Republicans. A notice sent by House Republican leadership Monday to every House Republican office recommending they oppose the budget measure said Democrats were “ignoring” Biden’s inaugural call for unity and were instead getting ready “to jam through a partisan COVID relief bill” full of a “liberal wish list” of provisions.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., filed reconciliation legislation Monday. The two Democratic leaders said it would pave the way for the passage of the full $1.9 trillion COVID-19 package.

“We are hopeful that Republicans will work in a bipartisan manner to support assistance for their communities, but the American people cannot afford any more delays and the Congress must act to prevent more needless suffering,” they said. 

Unclear definitions: Amid calls for unity, President Biden and Republicans don’t agree what that looks like

The Congressional Budget Office offered some encouraging signs for the economy.

The U.S. economy is expected to reach its pre-COVID-19 level by mid-2021, sooner than anticipated, and unemployment is poised to fall more rapidly as a result of a milder downturn and earlier recovery from the pandemic, according to the budget office’s latest estimates released Monday.

That doesn’t mean the economy will be made whole after the ravages of the health crisis because output will still be below where it would have been had the outbreak not occurred.

At the White House, Psaki declined to say how quickly a COVID-19 relief package must be approved but said it is urgent that the parties move forward.

Bonjean noted that two COVID-19 relief bills that passed last year took weeks of negotiations but said the process should not be allowed to drag out this time. Any bill that passes will take time to implement, he said, so the latest package needs to be approved in the next two weeks if Americans are to see the benefits by late spring.

“Since we’re in a pandemic, time is of the essence,” he said.

Contributing: Maureen Groppe, Paul Davidson, Ledyard King and Matthew Brown

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