As former President Trump’s historic second impeachment trial gets underway, it promises to be powerful — and quick.
That’s because President Biden and congressional Democrats are simultaneously moving full steam ahead with Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package. And while they’ve left the door open for talks with Republicans, they’ve made it clear that they’re plowing forward with or without GOP buy-in.
Last Friday, the House followed the Senate in passing the coronavirus relief bill along party lines. The 50-51 vote in the Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote, paved the way for Democrats to push the bill through budget reconciliation, which only requires a simple majority in the Senate.
That means Democrats won’t need any Republican support as committees work to mark up the final bill, which would, among other things, send a new round of $1,400 stimulus checks to Americans and boost the weekly federal unemployment benefit to $400 through September.
The goal is to have the full package on the House floor by the week of Feb. 22, according to Punchbowl News. That would put it on track to become law by the time federal unemployment benefits expire in mid-March.
So why aren’t Democrats holding their breaths for the type of bipartisanship that Biden was known for in his Senate days — and that he pledged to pursue as president?
Democrats have been by burned by GOP obstructionism for years, going all the way back to the early days of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
In the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency, when the economy was being ravaged by a global recession, Obama tried to win over Republicans by narrowing his economic stimulus plan, even though many experts said it was not sufficient enough to address the crisis.
In the end, only three Senate Republicans voted for the relief package, while none in the House voted for it.
And then, of course, there’s Obamacare.
Obama spent months courting moderate Republicans — including Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa — to pass his health care plan (which was based on conservative principles).
He watered down key parts of the plan to win their support, but then Grassley tanked the entire effort by warning about made-up “death panels” during a town hall.
The president reportedly asked Grassley if he would’ve supported the bill had it included all of the senator’s demands. “I guess not,” Grassley told him, according to Obama’s memoir “A Promised Land.”
“Thus ended the quixotic search for bipartisan support that proved so costly,” wrote Janet Hooks and Eli Stokols in a Jan. 29 LA Times article. “It delayed passage of Obama’s signature achievement into 2010, forcing compromises that won no Republican votes and ensuring that voters didn’t see much benefit from the new law before that year’s midterm elections, which delivered big GOP gains.”
Biden, who had a front-row seat to what essentially amounted to a colossal waste of time, is not about to wait around for a repeat performance.
The president did meet with 10 Republicans in the Oval Office recently to discuss their counter-offer, and he’s signaled that he’s willing to compromise on some elements of his plan.
For example, Biden said he’s willing to reconsider the income levels at which people qualify for stimulus checks, although he won’t budge on the $1,400 amount.
Both Democrats and Republicans also agree on the need for vaccine funding and help for small businesses.
But that’s about it, and the two sides are simply too far apart to meet in the middle.
The group of moderate Republicans who met with Biden proposed a package of $618 billion, nowhere near the $1.9 trillion Democrats are seeking.
The GOP proposal doesn’t include any assistance for state and local governments, whereas Biden’s proposal calls for $350 billion. Biden wants $170 billion to reopen schools. Republicans are only offering $20 billion. Biden’s child tax credit would total $120 billion. The GOP offer was zero.
Republican senators have criticized Biden for breaking his pledge to unify and heal the country by jamming through a massive spending package without any serious back-and-forth. But many of these same Republicans seem to have forgotten that the reason why the country needs healing in the first place is because their president spent four years tearing it apart, while they stood idly by.
There are many words that can be used to describe Trump’s presidency. Unifying is not one of them.
In contrast, for 36 years, Biden was known as a consensus-seeking centrist in the Senate. There’s little reason to doubt his sincerity that he would’ve liked to have negotiated a bipartisan COVID relief plan, but there’s little room to maneuver when the GOP’s starting point on so many key Democratic initiatives is zero.
Biden seems to understand there’s a difference between deal-making and dithering, especially given the urgency of a pandemic that has killed over 460,000 Americans.
“I’ve told both Republicans and Democrats, that’s my preference, to work together,” Biden told reporters last Friday. “But if I have to choose between getting help right now to Americans who are hurting so badly, and getting bogged down in a lengthy negotiation or compromising on a bill that’s up to the crisis, that’s an easy choice. I’m going to help the American people who are hurting now.”
Too Big, Too Fast?
Yet some observers — including one prominent Democrat — have questioned whether the president is going too big, too fast on a costly stimulus plan that may endanger even pricier progressive priorities down the line.
Larry Summers, Obama’s National Economic Council director, recently made waves when he penned an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that while he agrees with the premise of Biden’s relief bill, he disagrees with its eye-popping price tag.
“In normal times, a family of four with a pretax income of $1,000 a week would take home about $22,000 over the next six months. Under the Biden proposal, if the breadwinner were laid off, the family’s income over the next six months would likely exceed $30,000 as a result of regular unemployment insurance, the $400-a-week special unemployment insurance benefit and tax credits,” he wrote, warning that this could set off unprecedented inflationary pressures.
“Second, long before covid-19, the U.S. economy faced fundamental problems of economic injustice, slow growth and inadequate public investment in everything from infrastructure to preschool education to renewable energy. These are at the heart of Biden’s emphasis on building back better,” Summers added.
“If the stimulus proposal is enacted, Congress will have committed 15 percent of GDP with essentially no increase in public investment to address these challenges. After resolving the coronavirus crisis, how will political and economic space be found for the public investments that should be the nation’s highest priority?” he asked.
Biden’s treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, admits there’s a risk of overheating the economy, but says it’s a negligible one.
“I have spent many years studying inflation and worrying about inflation. And I can tell you, we have the tools to deal with that risk if it materializes,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“But we face a huge economic challenge here and tremendous suffering in the country. We have got to address that. That’s the biggest risk.”
Damned Either Way
Summers came under fire from Democrats who pointed out that he’s the one who argued Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan was far too small. (His op-ed also came out a day before yet another dismal jobs report, strengthening calls for swift, bold government action.)
But beyond the risks of doing too much versus too little, there’s a fundamental flaw in Summers’s argument: It rests on the assumption that Republicans would be willing to support Biden’s expansive progressive policies to begin with — a giant assumption, regardless of how COVID relief is passed.
That’s especially true of Biden’s “Build Back Better” infrastructure plan, an even more expensive package that contains a liberal wish-list anathema to the Republican Party.
This includes greater spending on infrastructure, climate change, health care, education and housing, funded in large part by increasing taxes on high-earners (or repealing the 2017 GOP tax cuts) — all policies that would be fiercely opposed by the GOP.
Can you truly imagine Republicans, many of whom up until recently denied that climate change even existed, agreeing to anywhere near the vicinity of the $2 trillion that Biden is eyeing to combat climate change?
Passing a trimmed-down COVID relief bill with GOP support won’t make these liberal policies any more palatable to Republicans.
That’s why some Democrats argue that Biden needs to include elements of his Build Back Better plan into the COVID relief package, because reconciliation can only be used once per fiscal year, so he’s only got one real shot at passing the major planks of his domestic agenda.
“After President Barack Obama took office during an economic crisis, his $800 billion stimulus bill included all kinds of progressive policies unrelated to the crisis,” wrote Michael Grunwald and Renuka Rayasam in the Feb. 3 edition of Politico Nightly.
“Obama’s Recovery Act included unprecedented investments in clean energy, medical research and electronic health records, the largest infrastructure investment since the interstate highways, the Race to the Top education reforms and other down payments on Obama’s long-term agenda. And it still provided enough short-term economic stimulus to help end the Great Recession by June 2009,” they pointed out.
In contrast, other than the minimum wage hike, most of Biden’s proposals are temporary and narrowly tailored (albeit costly).
And even the minimum wage hike may be dropped because it’s unlikely to fall under the rules of budget reconciliation.
Train Has Left the Station
But the debate over whether to include additional policies in the $1.9 billion relief bill is likely moot at this point. The top line figure of the bill has been set — and isn’t about to go any higher. And with Democrats rushing to pass the legislation before federal unemployment benefits expire in March, it’s probably too late to cram in a bunch of new big-ticket items.
So again, that leaves a major to-do list for Biden after coronavirus relief is passed, and the chances of Republicans pitching in to help after Democrats rammed through nearly $2 trillion in spending are slim to none.
But many observers seem to forget that Democrats hold a majority in both chambers of Congress — albeit a razor-thin one.
No doubt it will be a herculean task to wrangle the opposing wings of the Democratic Party, where you’ve got senators like Bernie Sanders (technically an independent) and Joe Manchin under the same tent.
Then there’s the increasingly influential 94-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is bound to push Biden past his comfort zone on issues such as forgiving student loan debt and getting rid of the filibuster.
But the task of corralling his party is not an impossible one.
Biden has already won over some progressives with his early outreach, executive actions and, most importantly, his decision to push through COVID relief with or without GOP support.
It’s also important to note that budget reconciliation does not preclude bipartisanship. While it’s highly unlikely, Republicans can still vote for Biden’s package. It happened in 2001, when 28 Democrats in the House and 12 in the Senate voted for George W. Bush’s tax cuts.
Indeed, cynics shouldn’t completely discount the possibility that Biden can find common ground with Republicans on some parts of his agenda, such as money to fix aging infrastructure and treat the now-overlooked opioid epidemic.
We saw this possibility emerge with the recent proposal by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) to provide American families with up to $4,200 in direct cash a year per child. With his Family Security Act, Romney waded into an incredibly complex debate over how to end child poverty. On the one hand, it’s actually more generous than some Democratic plans, while on the other it is paid for in part by eliminating other popular welfare programs.
But his proposal is innovative and merits serious consideration by the president and Democrats. (Romney was, after all, the brainchild behind Obamacare, whether he wants to take credit for it or not.)
In many ways, Romney’s child benefit plan reflects a larger evolution within the GOP questioning the long-held orthodoxy of tax cuts and trickle-down economics. It’s also an overdue recognition that the U.S. government lags far behind other developed nations in fighting child poverty.
But Romney’s proposal has already received fierce pushback from Republicans who say such generous benefits will dissuade Americans from working.
The blowback is just a small preview of the battles that lie ahead for the new president.
Indeed, it would be a mistake for Biden to assume that Republicans will all of sudden stop reflexively opposing whatever a Democratic president puts forth — even if that president has a long history of working across the aisle.
And even if Biden’ does make inroads with moderates like Romney, he would need to significantly pare down his ambitions to achieve any sort of bipartisanship.
Democrats argue that Biden can’t afford to do that with his COVID relief package — nor does he need to.
Many of the bill’s measures — like vaccine funding, stimulus checks, unemployment benefits and child care assistance — are universally popular. Plus, the new president’s got momentum on his side.
Biden knows he has a short window to capitalize on both if he’s going to succeed in tackling this make-or-break moment in American history — one that is likely to define his presidency.
He’s left the door open for Republicans to join him, but with a raging pandemic and a faltering economy, Biden doesn’t have time for baby steps to find a bipartisan consensus that’s probably out of reach anyway.