Hopes at the White House for bipartisan agreement on a Covid-19 relief package are fading little more than a week after President Joe Biden took office and made enacting his $1.9 trillion proposal his top priority, an early setback that showcases Washington’s enduring partisan divide.
The president began the week on Monday saying he was “open to negotiate” on his plan, but no counter-proposal emerged. With Republicans balking at Biden’s price tag, Democratic congressional leaders kick-started a move to proceed without them. Steps toward a so-called reconciliation bill, which Democrats can move on their own, begin the coming week.
After Republicans cried foul, saying the unilateral moves by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer amounted to a rejection of a bipartisan approach, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the question instead was why GOP members were blocking the proposal given broad public support.
The president made clear he wouldn’t halt the maneuvering toward a Democrat-only package.
“I support passing Covid relief with support from Republicans if we can get it. But the Covid relief has to pass — there’s no ifs, ands or buts,” Biden said Friday. Before a meeting with his economic team earlier in the day, he warned that an entire cohort of children face the danger of weaker lifetime earnings thanks to the crisis.
Economic data on Friday underscored both the shakiness of the recovery and the potential for fiscal spending to make a difference. Consumer spending fell for a second straight month in December. Yet personal income also climbed, thanks in part to the early distribution of assistance from the $900 billion December relief bill.
Failure to secure bipartisan backing is a major disappointment for the new president, who in his Jan. 20 inauguration speech spoke about the need for unity after the bitter partisanship and violence of the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency. It also follows his own individual outreach efforts to members of the Senate, the chamber where he worked for 36 years.
Biden called Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Ohio’s Rob Portman — who recently announced he won’t be running for re-election, something that might have made him less subject to partisan pressures.
Yet by Friday afternoon no GOP member of the chamber had come out to back his package. Republicans including Senators Roy Blunt of Missouri and Mitt Romney of Utah were open to looking at more money for coronavirus vaccines and testing, spurring speculation that Biden’s plan could be split. The idea: move ahead with a slimmed-down bipartisan bill, then proceed with the more politically contentious items through the reconciliation route.
The White House made clear that wasn’t going to happen. “We’re not going to break it apart,” Psaki said Friday.
The focus now appears to be shifting toward holding the Democratic caucus together, something that will be critical given the 50-50 partisan split in the Senate. Vice President Kamala Harris conducted local media interviews with outlets in West Virginia and Arizona — the home states of moderate senators Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, each of whom could prove crucial to passing a reconciliation bill.
Top Democrats continue to say they want to cut a bipartisan deal, but that their patience is limited. The House and Senate are preparing to vote on budget resolutions as soon as the coming week — the first step toward a reconciliation bill, which allows the Senate to proceed on a simple-majority vote basis and avoiding the need for 60 votes to cut off debate.
The process is complex, and battles are likely over whether parts of Biden’s plan can qualify. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who’s set to chair the Senate Budget Committee, is preparing a case for the proposed minimum-wage increase, which will be strongly opposed by the GOP.
If Democrats choose the go-it-alone route, there will also be increasing pressure to include caucus-member priorities that would be more difficult to include in a bipartisan bill.
Incoming Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, is trying to link federal assistance programs including unemployment benefits to economic-data triggers — removing the need to repeatedly renew programs.
New York and New Jersey lawmakers are mounting a campaign to include a repeal of the $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions. Progressive Democrats are proposing monthly stimulus checks, rather than a single $1,400 payment.
Democrats must decide on how to proceed soon, as the reconciliation process takes weeks, and the expanded and extended federal unemployment assistance approved last month runs out March 14.