President Biden is facing a crossroads as he decides whether to work with Republicans on a coronavirus relief compromise or go for a larger package that likely won’t garner any GOP support.
Biden has repeatedly said he wants the COVID-19 bill to be bipartisan — underscored by his campaign and post-election push for unity — but is also adamant that a stimulus bill must pass, with or without GOP lawmakers.
Democratic leaders in Congress started the process Monday for passing a relief measure along party lines through the budget reconciliation process, though they urged Republicans to provide input and support for the bill.
In a nod to his desire to work with Republicans, Biden met with a group of GOP senators Monday evening about their pared-down $618 billion package, which is roughly a third of Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal.
But agreeing to a slimmer package would likely draw criticism on the left, with several Democrats, including incoming Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (Ore.), already panning the GOP counterproposal. Some Democrats are warning against a repeat of what they believe was too modest a response to the 2008 financial crisis.
“Congress was too timid and constrained, and the ensuing recovery was long, slow and painful,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Monday as he announced plans to move forward with reconciliation.
The White House framed Monday’s meeting as an opportunity for dialogue, making clear going into it that Biden remains committed to a large package like his $1.9 trillion proposal to address compounding crises brought on by the pandemic.
The White House characterized the meeting as “productive” in a statement Monday evening while acknowledging Biden’s view that the GOP proposal falls short and indicating that he would not back down from his demand for a robust package.
After Monday night’s two-hour meeting, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of the participants, told reporters the talks were “very productive” and “cordial,” adding that both sides agreed to have follow-up conversations.
“It was a very good exchange of views. I wouldn’t say that we came together on a package tonight. No one expected that in a two-hour meeting,” Collins said.
Democrats are laying the groundwork this week to pass coronavirus relief on their own if Biden’s bipartisan negotiations don’t yield a deal. The House is poised to pass a budget resolution Wednesday that includes reconciliation instructions, with the Senate needing to act before the start of former President Trump’s impeachment trial next week.
Reconciliation would allow for passing coronavirus relief with just 51 votes instead of the 60 usually required for legislation. That would include support from all 50 Democrats, including centrists like Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.).
Democrats argue that Biden’s approach will keep the door open to a bipartisan compromise while also ensuring that a bill can be passed before certain unemployment benefits expire in mid-March. The reconciliation process is likely to take several weeks.
“As far as I can tell, he is trying to hear out Republicans that want to compromise while at the same time putting the gears in motion to use the so-called reconciliation process,” said Jim Manley, a former communications director for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Manley said Democrats appeared to have shifted their approach to avoid making the mistakes of more than a decade ago, when they approved a $787 billion economic recovery bill that some saw as falling short of what was needed during the Great Recession.
“As someone who was around in 2009 and watched Sen. Reid work like hell to get anything done, I’m encouraged by the fact that Democrats seem to have learned a lesson from that and that is: Don’t undercut your own negotiations by agreeing to a number far less than what’s needed,” he said.
The current negotiations may also be colored by Biden’s experience in 2009 when he was vice president, and the Obama White House spent months courting GOP support for the Affordable Care Act. Efforts to appease Republican senators ultimately went nowhere, and the bill passed without any GOP votes in the upper chamber.
Those who have worked with Biden say he is serious about getting Republican support for coronavirus relief and would prefer to pass a bipartisan bill. Using reconciliation could also spell trouble for the prospect of any bipartisan deals going forward.
“I think they will always attempt to do as much as they can in a bipartisan manner — that is just who he is,” said Moe Vela, a senior adviser to Biden when he served as vice president.
But it’s unclear how far Biden might be willing to go to get a bipartisan deal. Psaki declined to lay out any “red lines” on Monday when asked about the GOP proposal not including aid for state and local governments, something for which Biden has pushed. She also would not offer a specific timeline on when a compromise would need to be reached, though she repeatedly stressed the urgency of the situation.
Meanwhile, millions of Americans remain out of work as virus cases and deaths continue to mount.
Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi said the U.S. economy is “struggling.”
“It’s growing, but barely,” he said.
One former Obama administration official described Monday’s meeting with GOP senators as “a starting point.”
The White House “will probably move a little but will try to push through as much as they can,” the former official said before the meeting, arguing it would be easier to try to accommodate Manchin’s concerns and pass it with Democratic support than it would be to try and wrangle 10 or more Republican votes.
In a sign of the strength of the White House’s position among Democrats, Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), a moderate member of the conference, is voicing his support for Biden’s $1.9 trillion package.
“Ultimately, in the end I think this needs to be big enough to get the job done,” Tester said Monday. “I think there’s opportunity there to make some changes to it, and we’ll see, but if push comes to shove and if it doesn’t get changed, I’ll vote for the $1.9 [trillion].”
And while Republicans in Congress have not backed Biden’s proposal, GOP governors and mayors have offered support for the larger price tag.
“We need to understand that trying to be, per se, fiscally responsible at this point in time, with what we’ve got going on in this country — if we actually throw away some money right now, so what?” West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) said Monday on CNN. “We have really got to move and get people taken care of.”