WASHINGTON — Most Democrats have a simple answer for Republicans who don’t want to go along with President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan: Screw ’em.
But the substance, process and politics of legislating aren’t that simple.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, articulated the heavy-handed view in a tweet over the weekend.
“Regular people don’t care whether we pass something with 51 or 60 votes,” Schatz wrote. “It’s a pandemic and the largest economic contraction in 90 years. We must ignore those who call anything a Republican proposes a compromise, and anything a Democrat proposes partisan.”
That’s easier for Schatz to say than it is for Biden to do. The conundrum facing the new president is threefold.
First, his promise to deliver a robust rescue package is coming into conflict with his vow to be a unifier. Even the Republicans who say they are open to working with him are offering him a third of what he wants, and it’s not yet clear that all 50 Democrats would even vote for his proposal.
Second, the filibuster-proof budget “reconciliation” process many Democrats see as the vehicle for his plan is complex and comes with its own unintended consequences, such as automatic cutting of safety-net programs. And because it’s arcane, not all of his allies will be patient with him and congressional Democrats if a relief bill runs into snags.
Third, and perhaps most important, Biden is well aware of the ideological pitfalls and political benefits of bipartisanship. Those benefits are not — as some Democrats suggest — limited to just happy talk about about everyone getting along.
Instead, bipartisan legislating is a form of insurance for the president and his party. In this case, it would mean that some Republicans would have to sell the benefits of the law to the public. Those lawmakers would want to make their constituents understand why they thought siding with Democrats was the right thing to do. With both Democrats and Republicans touting its provisions, a law is more likely to be popular and sustainable.
By the same token, it is difficult for the minority party to make political hay out of a bill that passed with support from both sides. If he cuts a deal, Biden will anger his base, but he may protect himself and his fellow Democrats in Congress.
Biden has signaled openness to working with Republicans on the Covid-19 relief measure. He agreed to meet with 10 GOP senators on Monday to discuss their $618 billion counterproposal to his plan. Several of them are no-question-about-it conservatives. If Biden can’t cut a deal with them, and many Democrats don’t even want him to consider a pared-back package, the backup plan is reconciliation.
Robert Wolf, an investor and Biden donor, told NBC News that he thinks the most likely outcome is a compromise between Biden and some Senate Republicans because the incentive exists for action.
“The initial offer by the Republicans at $600 billion is way too low, but I do believe the president should and will be able to do a deal garnering 60 votes because any member in Congress would need to be on another planet to think that relief for hard-working Americans is not needed immediately,” Wolf said in a text message.
Last week, the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, proposed a $1 trillion coronavirus aid plan that would jettison a couple of Biden’s priorities and retain a lower level of his proposal’s assistance to state and local governments, a provision that has been a sticking point for Republicans.
Biden could make a deal with Republicans for a smaller price tag, but then push the rest through budget reconciliation — a two-step that would provide some measure of assistance to the public quickly and leave the rest to a later date. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week that, “We’re not looking to split the package.”
Reconciliation is one of the more complicated tasks Congress undertakes, and even many lawmakers are unfamiliar with the rules that govern it. Already, House Republican leaders are identifying provisions of Biden’s proposal — including a federal $15-per-hour minimum wage — that wouldn’t be able to pass the Senate rules.
If Republicans kill the minimum wage hike on a procedural vote during reconciliation, Biden would be able to forgo it and still tell his voters that he fought for it.
But even before Democrats can write a reconciliation bill, they have to figure out how to pass a budget. That means all 50 Democratic senators and all but a few House Democrats agreeing to the same spending-and-taxing blueprint for the country. Already, Senate Democrats are clamoring for an increase in home-energy assistance for lower-income Americans.
The adoption of the budget resolution by both chambers — which is not at all a given — would allow Democrats to propose up to three reconciliation bills.
Reconciliation bills can’t be filibustered in the Senate — it takes only a bare majority to adopt them — but they are also limited by the “Byrd rule,” which requires 60 votes if the measure would increase the debt, among other prohibitions. There’s a 39-page Congressional Research Service report on the Byrd Rule for anyone who doubts its complexity.
That rule was designed to keep Congress from circumventing the filibuster to make new policy and was meant only to help keep the nation’s budget in line. In other words, it exists to stop lawmakers from using reconciliation to circumvent the filibuster on partisan issues.
But now everything is a partisan issue. So, the choices Biden is faced with amount to a question of whether he’d rather stick to his unity script and cut his relief package significantly, try to use every available procedural tool and all the Democratic votes to enact his bill, or take a shot at both.
The cleanest path to getting something done, as it has been for most of Biden’s career, is accumulating 60 or more votes in the Senate. But it’s not what he wants, and it’s certainly not what most of his party wants.