President Joe Biden will on Monday meet with 10 Republican senators who have drawn up a smaller counter-proposal to his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 rescue plan in the most critical test yet of his core promise to forge unity over bitter partisan lines.
But hopes for a rare bipartisan deal at the start of a new administration still look doubtful because the offer pushed by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and her colleagues has a potentially fatal catch. It is less than a third of the size of the economic shock treatment the White House says the nation needs.
Biden’s original legislation proposes direct payments to most Americans and extends unemployment benefits until September as it seeks to plug a huge hole in the economy caused by the pandemic. It also raises the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, fulfilling a major campaign promise. The plan provides hundreds of billions of dollars to expand Covid-19 testing, to improve the rollout of vaccines and to get kids back in school.
The President must now evaluate whether the new Republican offer is a good faith opening bid in an effort to find common ground, or a bluff calling exercise that would cause lasting damage to a new President’s authority and political capital if he were to accept it.
And while Biden is keen to prove his capacity to make a divided Washington work, he knows he risks fracturing support from Capitol Hill Democrats if he significantly downsizes his own plan to win Republican support in the Senate.
While welcoming the willingness of the 10 Republicans to engage with the President, the White House is also subtly underscoring that a plan that is well short of Biden’s ambitions will not be acceptable.
“As leading economists have said, the danger now is not in doing too much: it is in doing too little. Americans of both parties are looking to their leaders to meet the moment,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement on Sunday evening.
The senators said in a joint statement Sunday that they appreciated Biden’s quick response to their proposal and had accepted an invitation to meet the President at the White House on Monday afternoon.
The Republican’s $618 billion plan includes funding for vaccines, testing, small businesses, unemployment insurance, direct payments, child care and schools, according to a summary of the proposal obtained by CNN.
The Republican plan is expected to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office likely Monday afternoon, leading to the release of more of the plan’s details.
The intrigue over the Covid relief negotiations adds another high-stakes confrontation to an already tense and combative moment on Capitol Hill as the political forces that will shape the first two years of the Biden presidency emerge. Fierce mistrust between Democrats and Republicans in the House — over personal safety in the wake of the January 6 insurrection incited by former President Donald Trump — means any hope of bipartisan negotiation on Covid relief is all but unthinkable. Trump’s move to assert control over the House caucus, with his meeting last week with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and his call over the weekend with QAnon supporter and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is sure to inject new poison into the political atmosphere.
And prospects for cross party talks in the Senate are hardly rosy, as the chamber gears up for Trump’s impeachment trial next week in which it is already clear sufficient Republicans to avoid a two-thirds majority intend to acquit him over the most outrageous attack on the US government by a President in history.
Biden meanwhile will seek to keep up the momentum of his first few weeks in office with a major foreign policy address (rescheduled from Monday until later in the week owing to a snowstorm) and with new initiatives to tackle the jobs crisis.
Democrats ready to move despite GOP offer
Democratic leaders in Congress are this week already set to go down a route that would trigger a controversial budget procedure known as reconciliation to pass the $1.9 trillion rescue bill with no GOP votes — a move Biden critics would be sure to seize upon to argue that his offers of unity and negotiations are hollow. Reconciliation is a measure that allows the swift passage of laws related to the budget, spending and debt. It is controversial because it would allow Democrats to pass the package with a simple majority and get around Republican blocking tactics rooted in the 60-vote supermajority needed to get most legislation through the chamber.
The new President’s dilemma is exactly the kind of scenario that he said on the campaign trail that he would be able to navigate with his decades of Senate experience. The extreme political circumstances in which his first significant dealmaking will take place explain why many key Washington players, on either side of the aisle have long been skeptical of his bipartisan aspirations.
With Democrats pushing to use their slender majorities in the House and Senate to act fast, Biden must also consider how to turn down any GOP bid he deems insufficient to avoid crushing any future cross party coalitions.
The Republican plan includes commitments from 10 senators — a sufficient number for the Senate to pass it under normal rules and for Biden to tout a rare victory that would unite a Democratic President and a significant group of GOP members. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska on whom Biden hopes to coax into future bipartisan efforts are among senators who have signed up to the counteroffer.
Any hope for an agreement however probably rests on whether the Republican plan is an opening bid in a negotiation that could see its prize raise significantly or is a symbolic gesture that was never designed to succeed.
If that is the case, the Republican plan will come to look little more than an effort to ease pressure on the party to produce its own version of a credible rescue plan and a trap to split the new President from his party.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Brian Deese, the director of Biden’s National Economic Council, said that the President’s plan was a direct fit for the scale of the challenge facing the economy.
“We’re in a unique crisis. And the elements of this plan really were designed and are designed to take on that crisis head on,” Deese said, referring to the worst economic year since the aftermath of World War II, a million new first time unemployment claims, and 30 million Americans with too little food to eat.
On top of that dire reality, Deese also warned that the rescue plan needed to be sufficiently large to speed up the administration of vaccines to end the pandemic and to help millions of kids get back to school.
“We’re certainly open to input from anywhere where we can find a constructive idea to make this package as effective as possible. But the President is uncompromising when it comes to the speed that we need to act at to address this crisis,” Deese said.
Later on Sunday, after Biden met his advisers to discuss the relief package, a senior administration official said Biden was open to some negotiation but that the $600 billion Republican plan is “not going to scratch the itch.”
Offering a carrot to the GOP group, the official told CNN’s Pamela Brown that the President is specifically willing to discuss waiving stimulus checks for families making more than $150,000 per year.
One complication is that the smaller GOP plan would likely force the White House to return to Capitol Hill for new extensions in unemployment benefits in a matter of months — at a time when an already treacherous political climate will likely have worsened and will make agreement even more difficult to forge.
Initial indications were that Capitol Hill Democrats have little appetite for the GOP counterproposal at a time when many are warning that swift action is mandatory to stop the economy sliding into an even deeper hole.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told the New York Daily News that the Republican offer was insufficient.
“They should negotiate with us, not make a take-it-or-leave-it offer,” he said.
And Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said on ABC News “This Week” that he believed Democrats had sufficient votes to pass the bill by using reconciliation.
Signs that bipartisanship will prove impossible
The gap between two conflicting visions of the size of the crisis and the measures that might fix it was on display when CNN’s Dana Bash interviewed Ohio Sen. Rob Portman — who is among the 10 Republican senators who signed on to the smaller, alternative plan — on “State of the Union.”
“It is extraordinary to me that you have a great speech … at the inaugural, talking about the need to heal and the need for us to work together as a country, Republican and Democrat alike, and a pledge to do more outreach to Republicans, and then the next day landing on our desks a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 package, when, only a month ago, we passed a $900 billion Covid-19 package that was entirely bipartisan,” Portman said.
Portman also criticized the potential use of reconciliation — even though Republicans used it in the last administration to push through Trump’s massive tax cut bill and in an effort to invalidate the Affordable Care Act — saying the move could tear the country apart.
Many Democrats however are likely to calculate that most Americans are hardly going to be alienated by an obscure parliamentary procedure. For them, passing the bill in its entirety without Republican support is not just vital to shore up a deeply destabilized economy but is a crucial moment that must be used to display Democratic power in Washington at the opening of the new presidency. And there will be concerns of a repeat of the scenario that played out during efforts to pass the ACA during the Obama administration. The former President spent time trying to accommodate some GOP goals — a process that delayed the bill for months, but then the Republican Party rejected it anyway.
And unless Biden can persuade Republicans to significantly increase their offer, his own need to demonstrate his authority and to get to grips with a crisis that will define his presidency is likely to weigh against his hopes to win GOP votes he doesn’t strictly need.