The Washington Post Sunday

Re­lief bill tests call for unity

GOP, LIB­ER­ALS HAVE BI­DEN IN EARLY VISE Choice may be be­tween bi­par­ti­san plan or big one

- BY ERICA WERNER, SE­UNG MIN KIM AND JEFF STEIN US Elections · U.S. News · US Politics · Politics · Elections · Joe Biden · Congress of the United States · Republican Party (United States) · Democratic Party (United States) · United States Senate · United States of America · Massachusetts · Donald Trump · Missouri · U.S. Centers for Disease Control · Zoom Video Communications · White House · Rob Portman · Ohio · Mitt Romney · Utah · White House Press Secretary · Manhattan · Barack Obama · Nancy Pelosi · California · Kentucky · Washington State · Elizabeth Warren · Roy Blunt · Manhattan Institute · John Yarmuth · Suzan DelBene

Pres­i­dent Bi­den’s pitch for bi­par­ti­san unity to de­feat the coro­n­avirus and res­ur­rect the econ­omy is crash­ing into a par­ti­san buzz saw on Capi­tol Hill, where Repub­li­cans and Democrats can’t agree on ground rules for run­ning the Se­nate — let alone pass a $1.9 tril­lion stim­u­lus bill.

Bi­den’s re­lief pack­age is be­ing de­clared dead on ar­rival by se­nior Se­nate Repub­li­cans, some of whom say there has been lit­tle, if any, out­reach from the Bi­den team to get their sup­port. Lib­er­als are de­mand­ing the pres­i­dent aban­don at­tempts to make a bi­par­ti­san deal al­to­gether and in­stead ram the mas­sive leg­is­la­tion through with­out GOP votes. And out­side groups are turn­ing up the pres­sure for Bi­den and the Democrats who con­trol Congress to en­act eco­nomic re­lief quickly, even if it means cut­ting Repub­li­cans out of the deal.

In the face of these com­pet­ing pres­sures, Bi­den may dis­cover he can get a big coro­n­avirus stim­u­lus bill or a bi­par­ti­san deal — but not both. The path Bi­den chooses with his first ma­jor piece of leg­is­la­tion could set the tone for the re­main­der of his term, re­veal­ing whether he can make good on his prom­ise to unify Congress and the coun­try.

“It’s im­por­tant that Democrats de­liver for Amer­ica. If the best path to that is to do it in a way that can bring Repub­li­cans along, I’m all in fa­vor of that,” Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.) said. “But if Re

want to cut back to the point that we’re not de­liv­er­ing what needs to be done, then we need to be pre­pared to fight them. Our job is to de­liver for the Amer­i­can peo­ple.”

Pub­licly, top aides in­sist Bi­den is se­ri­ous about want­ing a bi­par­ti­san deal on the re­lief bill. They say that should be achiev­able given the mag­ni­tude of the eco­nomic and health-care cri­sis be­set­ting the na­tion a year af­ter the pan­demic be­gan, with more than 412,000 dead and the econ­omy newly shed­ding jobs. Some Democrats have ex­pressed op­ti­mism that GOP frus­tra­tion with how the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ended could lead some Repub­li­cans to be more open to a fresh start with a Demo­cratic pres­i­dent, es­pe­cially since long­time law­mak­ers know Bi­den from his decades in the Se­nate and as vice pres­i­dent.

But when Bi­den’s re­lief plan rang in at nearly $2 tril­lion this month, and in­cluded lib­eral pri­or­i­ties like an in­crease in the fed­eral min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour, some Repub­li­cans saw it as a sign that Bi­den wasn’t re­ally se­ri­ous about get­ting their sup­port. Even those Repub­li­cans who have sug­gested they’re open to mak­ing a deal have made clear that the pack­age would need to un­dergo sig­nif­i­cant changes.

“I sus­pect the whole pack­age is a non­starter, but it’s got plenty of starters in it. And a lot of them are things that we pro­posed in terms of more as­sis­tance to the states,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), re­fer­ring to money for vac­cine dis­tri­bu­tion and the fed­eral Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol and Preven­tion. “There’s some things in there that aren’t go­ing to hap­pen. There’s some things that can hap­pen. And that’s how this process should work.”

Out­reach to GOP law­mak­ers be­fore and af­ter the plan’s re­lease ap­pears to have oc­curred only at the staff level so far and has been con­fined to a lim­ited num­ber of sen­a­tors, in­clud­ing mem­bers of a bi­par­ti­san group who helped break a stale­mate over coro­n­avirus re­lief leg­is­la­tion late last year.

On Sun­day, Bi­den eco­nomic ad­viser Brian Deese is sched­uled to di­rectly brief the sen­a­tors in that group on a Zoom call. But as of Fri­day, Se­nate GOP lead­er­ship had not been for­mally briefed, and mul­ti­ple GOP law­mak­ers who are part of the bi­par­ti­san talks said they had heard noth­ing from the White House, even though Bi­den pitched him­self on the cam­paign trail as a bi­par­ti­san deal­maker.

“I have not per­son­ally [heard from the White House], and I’m dis­ap­pointed in that, not about me but about, you know, it’s one thing to talk about out­reach, an­other thing to do it,” said Sen. Rob Port­man (R-Ohio), a se­nior law­maker who is a mem­ber of the bi­par­ti­san group that will con­fer Sun­day with Deese.

“It’s much more suc­cess­ful around here if you try to get the bi­par­ti­san­ship at the start so that it’s a foun­da­tion of trust,” Port­man added.

In­stead, Bi­den un­veiled his $1.9 tril­lion plan with­out any bi­par­ti­san buy-in, leav­ing Repub­li­cans to ques­tion the need for such a big new pack­age com­ing on the heels of the $900 bil­lion Congress ap­proved in De­cem­ber for eco­nomic re­lief, vac­cines and more. In­clud­ing that leg­is­la­tion, Congress has al­ready de­voted about $4 tril­lion to fight­ing the pan­demic and the eco­nomic dev­as­ta­tion it wrought.

“I look for­ward to hear­ing their views. My own thought is that we should only be spend­ing money where there is need that needs to be met, and so I’d like to see the fig­ures and cal­cu­la­tions be­hind their pro­posal,” said Sen. Mitt Rom­ney (R-Utah), an­other mem­ber of the bi­par­ti­san group. “I think there’s a recog­ni­tion on both sides of the aisle that where there’s need, we in Congress have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to help meet that. But we don’t want to be bor­row­ing money that’s not ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary.”

Ques­tioned about how a nearly $2 tril­lion pack­age filled with pro­pos­als that are anath­ema to Repub­li­cans pub­li­cans could be de­scribed as a bi­par­ti­san over­ture, White House press sec­re­tary Jen Psaki in­sisted it was.

“Is un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance only an is­sue that Democrats in the coun­try want? Do only Democrats want their kids to go back to schools? Do only Democrats want vac­cines to be dis­trib­uted across the coun­try?” Psaki said at a White House news brief­ing. “He feels that pack­age is de­signed for bi­par­ti­san sup­port.”

She said Bi­den would be get­ting per­son­ally en­gaged in find­ing sup­port for his plan. “He’s very ea­ger to be closely in­volved, roll up the sleeves . . . and make the calls him­self,” she said.

Psaki said that in try­ing to sell the pack­age to Repub­li­cans, the White House ap­proach would be to ask them which pro­vi­sions they would cut. The wide-rang­ing pro­posal in­cludes a new round of $1,400 stim­u­lus checks to in­di­vid­u­als, an ex­ten­sion of and in­crease in emer­gency un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits that would oth­er­wise ex­pire in mid-March, and an en­hanced child tax credit, as well as hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars to help schools re­open and in­crease coro­n­avirus test­ing and vac­cine pro­duc­tion and de­liv­ery.

Some Repub­li­cans are open to a num­ber of those pro­vi­sions but view oth­ers — such as the min­i­mum-wage in­crease — as un­re­lated to the pan­demic and de­signed to ap­pease an antsy lib­eral base more than garner bi­par­ti­san back­ing.

“Bi­den’s open­ing or­der was such an over­reach that in­stead of open­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions, it just scared Repub­li­cans away,” said Brian Riedl, pol­icy ex­pert at the lib­er­tar­ian-lean­ing Man­hat­tan In­sti­tute and a for­mer GOP Se­nate aide. Riedl said Repub­li­cans may be open to a deal some­where be­tween $500 bil­lion and $1 tril­lion but that Bi­den’s open­ing bid made that less likely. “The open­ing of­fer can be so ex­treme it can poi­son the well and push the other side away,” he said.

While in­sist­ing that Bi­den’s pref­er­ence is for a bi­par­ti­san deal, Psaki has re­peat­edly de­clined to rule out mov­ing for­ward un­der spe­cial Se­nate rules that al­low leg­is­la­tion to pass with a sim­ple ma­jor­ity vote in­stead of the 60 votes nor­mally re­quired. That was how Pres­i­dent Barack Obama passed key leg­is­la­tion amend­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act and how Repub­li­cans passed their mas­sive tax cut early in Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s term. The pro­ce­dure could al­low Bi­den to pass his coro­n­avirus re­lief pack­age with only Demo­cratic votes.

But the path for­ward un­der this bud­get rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process could be tricky. The Se­nate is split 50-50 be­tween Democrats and Repub­li­cans, giv­ing Democrats con­trol only be­cause Vice Pres­i­dent Har­ris can cast tie-break­ing votes. That means any in­di­vid­ual Demo­cratic sen­a­tor could hold the leg­is­la­tion up with an ar­ray of de­mands.

Also, Se­nate lead­ers thus far haven’t even been able to agree on a deal on how to op­er­ate the Se­nate with a 50-50 split, and they’re also still ar­gu­ing over the tim­ing and process for Trump’s im­peach­ment trial. Both is­sues are emerg­ing as im­ped­i­ments to Bi­den get­ting his Cab­i­net con­firmed and also prob­a­bly need to get re­solved be­fore the Se­nate could take up a re­lief bill.

Democrats in Congress and within the White House are split on how much time to de­vote to try­ing to strike a bi­par­ti­san deal be­fore turn­ing to bud­get rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and leav­ing Repub­li­cans be­hind. Bi­den was vice pres­i­dent when Obama de­voted many weeks to fu­tile ne­go­ti­a­tions with Repub­li­cans over the Af­ford­able Care Act, be­fore fi­nally pass­ing the leg­is­la­tion with­out a sin­gle GOP vote.

Bi­den was also in­volved in ne­go­ti­a­tions over the $787 bil­lion stim­u­lus bill Obama signed in Fe­bru­ary 2009 in the throes of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Many Democrats wanted a larger pack­age at the time, but Repub­li­cans balked; sub­se­quently, many econ­o­mists have con­cluded that a larger stim­u­lus bill would have helped the na­tion climb out of the Great Re­ces­sion more quickly.

With that his­tory in mind, bud­get rec­on­cil­i­a­tion has emerged as the clear pref­er­ence for many lib­eral Democrats, es­pe­cially in the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sug­gested in a con­ver­sa­tion with donors Thurs­day evening that she was open to ad­vanc­ing Bi­den’s pro­posal via the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process in com­ing weeks, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with her re­marks. The per­son spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to con­firm the pri­vate com­ments, which were first re­ported by Punch­bowl News.

House Bud­get Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Yar­muth (D-Ky.) said he wasn’t aware of a fi­nal de­ci­sion on how to pro­ceed but that Democrats were wary of spend­ing too much time ne­go­ti­at­ing with Repub­li­cans at a mo­ment of ur­gency.

“To hag­gle over ev­ery lit­tle pro­vi­sion of Bi­den’s plan [with Repub­li­cans] might not be able to be done on a timely ba­sis,” Yar­muth said.

Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), chair of the New Demo­crat Coali­tion, noted that last year Repub­li­cans re­fused for months to pass any ad­di­tional re­lief, af­ter a spate of leg­is­la­tion in the spring, be­fore fi­nally agree­ing to an­other bill in De­cem­ber.

“We can’t let that hap­pen again,” DelBene said. “Peo­ple need cer­tainty and vis­i­bil­ity go­ing for­ward, and that’s why this pack­age is so im­por­tant.”

 ?? JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST ?? White House press sec­re­tary Jen Psaki, shown with Na­tional Eco­nomic Coun­cil Di­rec­tor Brian Deese, says the pres­i­dent’s $1.9 tril­lion plan “is de­signed for bi­par­ti­san sup­port.”
JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST White House press sec­re­tary Jen Psaki, shown with Na­tional Eco­nomic Coun­cil Di­rec­tor Brian Deese, says the pres­i­dent’s $1.9 tril­lion plan “is de­signed for bi­par­ti­san sup­port.”

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