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The most crucial week yet on COVID-19 relief begins

This week is President Joe Biden’s first big test, as his massive relief COVID-19 relief bill comes together on the Hill with very little bipartisan support.

On the cusp of 500,000 deaths and nearly one year into the pandemic that has devastated the economy, spiked unemployment, shuttered businesses and shattered families, Democrats will try to remain united and pass one more massive $1.9 trillion relief bill testing the party’s ability to deliver for their new President and lead together.

Bottom line: The next three weeks will give an early glimpse into how the Democrats’ moderates and progressives work together, who is willing to make good on their threats to torpedo legislation and who is willing to set aside their political grievances in the name of the bigger picture.

The goal is to pass this bill and get it signed by March 14. Everything has to go smoothly for that to happen. One party having the House, Senate and White House is never as easy as it looks, and that’s true even when talking about legislation that is overwhelmingly popular with the American public. When you ask members on the fence why they are voting for a bill that includes provisions they may not be so keen on, their answer is simple: you cannot vote against Biden’s first big ask and you certainly can’t vote against it when it polls like this package does.

What you’ll see in the House this week

The House Budget Committee is going to meet at 1 p.m. ET on Monday to mark up their 591-page bill and work to pass it out of Committee. The markup will be an opportunity for Republicans to message against the bill, rail against the increase in health care subsidies, attack provisions that provide funding to humanities, the arts and the preservation of Native American languages — which they will argue have nothing to do with coronavirus — and rail against the overall price tag of the package. They’ll offer amendments that we don’t expect to pass and then, when everyone has had enough, there will be a vote to advance the bill out of committee and send it to the floor.

The final vote on the package on the floor will be later this week likely Friday or Saturday.

The dynamics for Pelosi

Since taking the gavel in the 117th Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has led her narrow majority with precision. The next five days are going to be the highest-wire act of the new Congress yet. Pelosi has just about a five-vote margin. That means that she cannot afford to lose a group of progressives nor can she afford a moderate rebellion on this bill.

There’s no sign that is coming, but a week is an eternity on Capitol Hill. Dynamics shift and the more time a bill sits out in public, the more time there is for scrutiny. Moderate lawmakers I’ve talked to have repeatedly hinted that Pelosi has made it clear to the caucus that this bill is a priority for the President and what’s in is a carbon copy of what he has asked House Democrats to deliver. In other words, there isn’t much room for changes at this point, and for most moderates that’s OK. Will they always go along this easily? Probably not. But this time around as one Democrat put it to CNN, the bill is popular and there’s no point in sinking it.

“She is not fighting city hall here,” the Democratic moderate member told CNN. “There will be plenty of time for things to get more complicated on infrastructure and immigration.”

The Republican offense

Republican leaders in the House have made it clear to their members they don’t want them voting for Biden’s COVID relief package. They’ve urged a “no” vote, and are doing everything they can to ensure Biden’s administration doesn’t get the satisfaction of the legislation passing with bipartisan support. They want this to be a story about Biden promising unity only to ram his first big bill through without a single Republican vote.

They want to make this a process argument, and that’s because as CNN reported over the weekend, it’s hard to launch a full-on campaign against a bill that provides direct checks, an increase in the child tax credit, expanded unemployment and more money for vaccines.

For Republicans who do attack the merits of the bill, expect them to argue that the legislation includes provisions that aren’t at all related to coronavirus relief. Republicans are also blasting Democrats for changing the formula for state and local funding so that it is more heavily weighted toward states with higher unemployment rates. Those states tended to be places that had stricter coronavirus protocols and therefore are more likely to be controlled by Democratic governors. The formula before was a base of $1.25 billion for every state plus more money for every city in the state with a population over 500,000. That skewed in favor of bigger population states. This skews in favor of those who might have shuttered businesses longer to protect against the pandemic.

What you will see in the Senate

In the Senate, the work on the bill is going to be more behind the scenes, but it’s perhaps the more interesting story to watch this week as the events of the next few days may ultimately shape whether this bill can get through the Senate at all. As soon as Tuesday, Democratic and Republican staffers will sit down with Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough to hash out whether the $15 minimum wage is allowed under the budget reconciliation process.

That process is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, you can pass a bill in the Senate with just 51 votes. On the other, you have to comply with a strict series of rules about what is allowed.

You’ve seen Sen. Bernie Sanders and his staff expressing a lot of confidence that they are going to win this fight. A note of caution: it’s not up to them. It’s up to the parliamentarian. Yes, it’s true that the same parliamentarian allowed a provision to drill in ANWR to pass through this process during 2017, but every provision is unique, and given none of us are complete experts in Senate rules, it’s hard to predict which way this shakes out. As one aide put it to me last week when Democrats initially met with MacDonough, “she was stoic” in the meeting and didn’t tip her hand one way or the other.

Let’s talk about the Byrd bath

The meeting Tuesday is formally called a “Byrd bath” (in actuality there is more than one bath because Republicans and Democrats will hash out a series of issues in multiple meetings all week. But for the purposes of the minimum wage, the Byrd bath starts tomorrow.) The process is named after the late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd who established a set of rules that governed the budget reconciliation process. The rules were intended to ensure that the majority party didn’t just go and use reconciliation to pass any old thing through the Senate with just 51 votes. The rules include things like the provision has to have more than just an “incidental” impact on the country’s budget.

The parliamentarian will use those guideposts as well as precedent to make a “ruling” about whether she thinks the minimum wage is allowed using this process. The ruling will likely be handed down via email hours or even days after the meeting. That means we could get a ruling as early as Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, but maybe later given it will be up to the committee to share it with us. Other items we expect to undergo strict scrutiny by the parliamentarian includes a multi-employer pension provision, potentially paid leave,

Why it matters

As arcane as a ruling from the parliamentarian might sound, this matters because it could ultimately determine if this bill will have the votes to pass or not. Two moderate Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have made it clear they can’t support the COVID-relief bill with the $15 minimum wage. Progressives are counting on it being included. Quietly, Democratic senators and aides CNN is talking to all over the caucus argue that the parliamentarian stripping it out may be the only way to avoid a major, intra-party schism on Biden’s first big piece of legislation.

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