President Joe Biden’s oft-proclaimed love of bipartisan dealmaking will be tested this week as he talks with a group of Republican senators about their counterproposal to the stimulus bill floated by congressional Democrats and the White House. The Democratic stimulus plan, which Biden laid out in a speech on Thursday, is for $1.9 trillion in spending, including a one-time check of $1,400 to most Americans, a $400 weekly top-up to unemployed workers, aid to states and localities, and a phased-in increase in the minimum wage that could reach as high as $15 an hour. This proposal is likely to get little or no Republican support and so would have to pass through budget reconciliation, which requires a straight majority vote.
In an effort to stave off the Democratic proposal, 10 Senate Republicans have put forward an alternative stimulus package of just $600 billion, which includes a smaller stimulus check of $1,000 that would go to fewer Americans, a top-up of $100 a week for the unemployed, no aid to states and localities, and no minimum wage increase. The senators behind this proposal are Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Bill Cassidy, Mitt Romney, Rob Portman, Shelley Moore Capito, Todd Young, Jerry Moran, Mike Rounds, and Thom Tillis.
Biden has agreed to meet later today with the Republican senators, but it’s not clear what they will talk about. The Republican counterproposal is so divergent from the Democratic proposal that it has to be seen as a bad-faith effort. The Republican goal seems to be to slow down the stimulus effort and score points on the issue of “unity.” After all, there is no way Democrats can go with such a slimmed-down stimulus after winning two Senate seats in Georgia on the explicit promise of $2,000 stimulus (the original $600 voted under Trump and a new $1,400 check). So even if all 10 Republicans vote for the slimmed-down stimulus, it would still fail in the Senate, since a large number of Democrats are likely to reject it.
Nor is it clear that all 10 Republicans who rallied for the stripped-down stimulus would actually remain faithful to their own promises. It’s entirely possible that some of them are merely using talk of a counterproposal as a bait-and-switch measure. This is a familiar tactic that hobbled Democrats in the Obama years. The Obama White House would shave down proposals to please Republicans, only to find that the same GOP senators who asked for the compromises were no-shows in the end. As James Downie notes in The Washington Post, “Early in Barack Obama’s presidency, Democrats wasted months on futile hopes of wooing Republican support for his major priorities. Key bills such as the 2009 stimulus and the Affordable Care Act were watered down in return for little or no GOP support.”
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer is mindful of the lessons from those earlier failed negotiations. “We cannot do the mistake of 2009 where they whittled down the program so that the amount of relief was so small that the recession lasted 4 or 5 years,” Schumer said on Sunday. “And then on the ACA, when they spent a year, a year and a half negotiating and then didn’t come to any agreement.”
In the current negotiations, it’s hard to take seriously the good faith of South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds, who as recently as January 24 was repeating false and refuted claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election. Since Rounds is undermining Biden’s legitimacy as president, it’s absurd for Biden to negotiate with him.
What’s true of Rounds is also true of the larger Republican Party. In the last few weeks, the majority of congressional Republicans have shown an unwillingness to condemn former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the election and foment a riot. Nor have congressional Republicans as a group shown any willingness to sanction extremists in their party like Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Green, who has repeatedly advocated violence against Democratic lawmakers. It’s difficult to know what bipartisanship with the Republicans would mean, given that the GOP is rife with either extremism or tolerance for extremism.
As Adam Jentleson, once a staffer for former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, notes, the GOP counterproposal lays “bare the two paths before Dems: we can waste the nation’s time hoping Mike Rounds will vote for a fraction of what’s needed to address our challenges (he won’t, in the end); failure guaranteed. Or we can pass what is needed ourselves.”
The cynicism of this Republican group can be gauged by the fact that they put forward a counterproposal they knew Biden couldn’t accept and then deployed his own language of unity and bipartisanship against him.
“In the spirit of bipartisanship and unity, we have developed a COVID-19 relief framework that builds on prior COVID assistance laws, all of which passed with bipartisan support,” the Republican senators wrote in a letter to Biden. On Sunday, Bill Cassidy told Fox News, “If you want unity, you want bipartisanship, you ought to start with the group that’s willing to work together. They did not.”
Yet it’s hard to argue that Cassidy and the other Senate Republicans deserve all the blame for their dishonest and manipulative arguments. Biden handed them a powerful political weapon by promising to govern in the spirit of unity and bipartisanship. It would be political malpractice for an opposition party not to use that language to gum up the works.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an important voice on these issues as ranking member of the Budget Committee, told ABC News, “The question is not bipartisanship, the question is addressing the unprecedented crisis that we face right now. If Republicans want to work with us, they have better ideas on how to address those crises, that’s great. But…I have not yet heard that.”
The good news is that congressional Democrats, under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, are likely to rally around Sanders’s view. The dilemma for Biden will be picking between his party and the chimera of bipartisanship. This could be the moment Biden bids adieu to bipartisanship. Or to his hopes of a successful presidency.