The pattern seems to repeat itself endlessly. Once again, a Democratic president has to take over and fix the mess left behind by his Republican predecessor. And once again, Republicans are trying to prevent the Democratic president from taking effective action by pretending at bipartisanship, hamstringing efforts at relief through scare tactics over the deficit and moral hazard. FDR faced the same challenge in fixing the Great Depression after Hoover, Obama faced it in dealing with the Great Recession after Bush, and now Biden is dealing with the same challenge after Trump’s disastrous failure to respond to the pandemic.
The Biden plan to secure COVID relief is appropriately aggressive. It asks for $1.9 trillion to get people and businesses direct relief, implement vaccines and improved public health, help patch up ruined state and local budgets, assist beleaguered schools in reopening, raise the federal minimum wage, and assist struggling parents. This plan will not have difficulty passing the Democratic-controlled House.
The problem, of course, is the Senate. Deadlocked at 50-50 with the slimmest Democratic control by virtue of Vice President Harris’ tiebreaking vote, each and every Senator suddenly becomes a dealmaker–or dealbreaker. More importantly, the continued presence of the filibuster means that non-budget actions require the cooperation of at least 10 Republican Senators to reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to pass. Joe Biden’s own personal and campaign commitments toward bipartisanship and “unity” make the prospect of trying to secure Republican cooperation appealing.
But Republicans are not serious about cooperation. As with their efforts to derail the Affordable Care Act that ultimately resulted in zero Republican crossover votes, and their successful actions to shrink the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act far below what was necessary, there is a vast disparity between what Republicans are willing to accept and what the country needs. Ten Republican Senators have proposed a laughable counteroffer of $600 billion that lacks most of the critical elements of Biden’s push, including the federal minimum wage increase. They are pretending to be concerned about the deficit, despite having supported Trump’s budget-busting tax cuts for corporations and the rich, just as they did the decade previously under the George W. Bush.
Fortunately, Democrats appear to be getting wise to the game. Trying for bipartisanship is a fool’s errand when the other side does not negotiate in good faith:
Democrats are haunted by legislative memories of 2009 as they fashion their response to the multiple crises of 2021.
Their strategy for addressing the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying economic havoc is being shaped by what they see as their own miscalculations 12 years ago when Barack Obama became president, they controlled both houses of Congress and they tackled both an economic rescue package and a sweeping health care overhaul.
In retrospect, in the quest to win Republican backing for both, Democrats say, they settled for too small an economic stimulus and extended talks on the health care measure for too long. Those experiences explain why the White House and top Democrats are determined to move quickly this time on a plan for pandemic aid, and why they are reluctant to pare back their nearly $2 trillion stimulus package or make significant changes that would dilute it with no certainty of bringing Republicans on board.
That last sentence is crucial, too. There is no guarantee that even if Democrats did make the wrong choice on policy and cooperate in sabotaging badly needed relief efforts, that Republicans would not balk and alter the deal. Previously, efforts at bipartisanship with Republicans have resulted not only in stunted bills, but months of wasted time in which conservative media whipped up a frenzy against the legislation with their base. There is no reason to replicate the pattern.
Most of the budgetary elements of the Biden proposal can be passed unilaterally by Democrats using the budget reconciliation process that only requires 50 votes. There is some question as to whether the federal minimum wage qualifies under reconciliation rules, but most of the provisions should.
Ultimately, however, in order for the country to make real progress the filibuster will have to be eliminated. As the Senate skews ever more Republican and unrepresentative of the country as a whole, and as the GOP base continues to fall deeper into conspiracy theory paranoia, getting 60 votes to pass anything good will become almost impossible.
It’s good that Democrats are starting to understand that Republicans are not good faith negotiating partners, and that the only way to pass good policy is to go it alone. For now, that means using reconciliation. But soon even the most moderate members of the caucus will have to decide whether it’s more important to keep the filibuster or to get things done for the country.