President Joe Biden’s first full week in the White House has been dominated by one question: will he make good on promises of unity and continue to court reluctant Republicans to compromise on his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, or will his party push it through alone?
For Tawnya Bouma, who runs a non-profit in Michigan that provides mental health services, it’s irrelevant whether relief coming from Washington has bipartisan support or not. Getting both parties behind it would be nice, she says — it would indicate widespread empathy and she appreciates Biden’s calls for unity — but she just wants to know that her organization, which serves the spouses and children of veterans and first responders, will stay afloat. The pandemic has caused the grants and donations she usually relies on to dry up. She’s exhausted the $23,000 EIDL loan loan she received last April, and her two applications for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan have gone unheeded.
In the first week of December, Bouma had to reduce her employees work time to a collective 20 hours per payroll. Now she’s waiting on a $15,000 state-level grant from Michigan. If that falls through, she says, “we will cease to exist.” To her, the package Biden proposed earlier this month, which includes provisions like $15 billion in grants to small businesses, is a lifeline. “In order for us to gain the momentum and get back rolling where we were before COVID, we’re 100% relying on [the plan becoming law],” Bouma says.
Stories like Bouma’s are forming the fault lines for the first test of Biden’s presidency: the tension between quickly getting economic relief out the door and trying to amass bipartisan support for his first legislative effort. Biden spent his campaign stressing the need for unity, but the package that Bouma and millions of other Americans are waiting for has been met with skepticism by Republicans, who are balking at the price tag. Democratic leaders in Congress, clearly seeing the writing on the wall, are preparing the option to unilaterally move a relief bill ahead via “reconciliation,” an arcane process which would enable them to pass the legislation along party lines with 51 Senate votes, including Vice President Kamala Harris. But it would be a clear abandonment of Biden’s core promise to govern with both parties, giving Republicans fodder about his inability to change the polarizing tone of Washington.
Conventional wisdom says that if anyone can reach bipartisan consensus in this intractable era, it’s Biden, a four-decade veteran of the Senate who led congressional negotiations for eight years as Vice President. Both Biden and his top staff have been working the phones, Google Meet and Zoom to try and broker a deal. Biden’s Chief of Staff Ron Klain and senior advisor Anita Dunn are talking directly to lawmakers, says White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, as are Biden’s Legislative Affairs director Louisa Terrell and Biden’s close counselor Steve Ricchetti, whose new office is just down the narrow corridor from the Oval.
But hashing out these negotiations takes time, which is running out. The Commerce Department released a report on Thursday that said overall GDP declined 3.5 percent in 2020, the steepest since World War II. Former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial is about to consume the Senate. Unless action is taken, over 5 million people will lose a $300 weekly allotment in unemployment on March 14. On March 31, small businesses will no longer be able to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to keep them afloat. That same day, tens of thousands of airline workers will find themselves furloughed when the $15 billion in federal funds to keep them on payroll expires.
Experts say that these cliffs mean a bill ideally must be passed by mid-February to ensure recipients don’t see any lapse in benefits, like they did last year when Congress waited several months to renew the programs. “I’m thinking we have two weeks to pass a stimulus and have it signed in order for states to have the new benefits up and running and pay off smoothly,” says Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project who volunteered for Biden’s transition team. “Legislators need to realize they can’t bump up right against March 14, and I think they do. But I’ve worked in the Senate. I know how hard it is to draft a package and get consensus.”
Reaching this type of agreement is hard even when lawmakers agree the relief is needed. After passing the $2.2 trillion CARES Act last March, Congress was unable to pass another comprehensive relief package until December. Now, Republicans are resisting pressure to spend more money, arguing that doing so could increase the federal deficit and may not even be necessary.
Complicating matters further is the competing slate of additional priorities in the Senate. Only three of Biden’s cabinet nominees have been confirmed so far, and the chamber is racing to get them officially installed. And starting on Feb. 9, Senators will become jurors in Trump’s second impeachment trial, which precedent indicates is an all-consuming task. “No one knew the insurrection at the Capitol was going to happen [when Biden’s proposal was being drafted during the transition] and that has obviously created a set of consequences that have reshaped the environment,” says Rhett Buttle, a Biden campaign adviser and small business advocate.
That’s partially why Democrats in Congress are moving forward on two tracks. Haunted by their futile attempts to get Republican support for the Affordable Care Act 12 years ago, which took months and delayed passage of the bill, Democratic offices in both chambers are preparing budget resolutions that could come to the floor late next week, which would lay the foundation for the alternative path to funding Biden’s COVID-19 relief proposal. Once that budget resolution passes, the door is then open for going to “reconciliation,” a process that allows the majority party to skirt a 60-vote threshold in specific instances, such as when Republicans passed Trump’s tax cuts. If Republicans aren’t showing a serious willingness to negotiate Biden’s relief terms by the end of next week, the Democrats have the option to start down that road.
“Our preference is to make this important work bipartisan, to include input, ideas and revisions from our Republican colleagues or bipartisan efforts to do the same. But if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation, we will have to move forward without them,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Thursday.
Reconciliation is not the administration’s preference. But Biden and his aides are well aware of the impending deadlines. Brian Deese, the head of the National Economic Council, has been briefing Senators and lawmakers of both parties all week. Biden himself has been taking one-on-one phone calls with Senators too. He has so far stopped short of jumping into broader negotiations and hasn’t called a group together at the White House, a move Psaki said would be “good television” but may not yield results.
So far, these efforts have yielded nothing, and patience with Republicans is wearing thin, says a person familiar with the White House outreach to lawmakers. None of the requisite ten Republican Senators the White House would need to pass the measure have said they are on board.
Biden’s advisors are still publicly expressing satisfaction with the state of play. “The President feels this is working as it should. He proposed his package. He’s getting feedback. We’re having conversations. We don’t expect the final bill to look exactly the same as the first bill he proposed,” Psaki said at her daily briefing on Jan. 25.
But they also know they can’t wait forever, especially with these looming deadlines. In public remarks that same day, Biden predicted the negotiating process would likely end “in a couple of weeks,” noting that “time is of the essence.” Biden will meet on Friday with his newly installed Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to discuss the impact that delayed assistance has on businesses, workers and families. Few Biden allies think he will wait longer than the time period he forecasted. “He’s not going to give up the chance to help the American people for the sake of bipartisanship,” says Moe Vela, senior adviser to Biden when he was Vice President. “If he did that, I think so many of us would be horribly disappointed in him.”
His allies are also pushing back against Republicans’ inevitable attack line that if Democrats pass relief unilaterally, Biden is not serious about working across the aisle. “The general success of unity will not be judged by one first piece of legislation,” says John Anzalone, Biden’s campaign pollster. “It just can’t be. Not when you’re in a crisis.”
No matter the ultimate outcome, for many businesses, any additional relief will be coming too late. Before the pandemic, Vinh Nguyen, 55, owned two Vietnamese restaurants in northern Virginia known locally for their carefully crafted pho soup broth. Born in Saigon into a family that fought against the Communist takeover, Nguyen came to the U.S. as a refugee and worked dozens of jobs in 10 states before building up a restaurant business. He already had to shutter one restaurant in October after the pandemic tanked sales, he says. Now, the landlord for his other restaurant, Saigon 1975, wants him to hand over the keys on Jan. 31 after months of being unable to make the rent.
The economic downturn has already cost Nguyen his house. He, his wife and his four kids between the ages of 16 and 20 have moved into a townhouse nearby that they are renting from a friend. He applied for PPP assistance at three banks but no bank would extend assistance. “It’s too late,” Nguyen says. At this point, he says, he has to start over, as he did when he fled Vietnam and arrived in the U.S. “My life started from zero, from the bottom,” Ngyuen says. “Now I go back to zero,” he says. “But I never give up. I keep fighting.”
The original version of this story misstated previous uses of the reconciliation process. Democrats used the option to update the Affordable Care Act. The underlying bill passed Congress when Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate.