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President Joe Biden walks into the State Dining Room to make a statement following the passage of the American Rescue Plan in the U.S. Senate at the White House in in Washington, D.C., on March 6, 2021. Credit - Samuel Corum—Getty Images
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If the very narrow success of the pandemic-relief package isn’t being received as a warning sign by Democrats, they’re ignoring reality.
The $1.9 trillion piece of legislation, which passed the Senate on Saturday with the barest 50-49 majority, now is heading back to the House to approve some Senate-written changes as early as tomorrow. It should be fine for Democrats, thanks to a 10-seat advantage in the lower chamber. But the fact that Republicans stood so firmly united against a popular measure that has broad and bipartisan support should shake some of the optimism around President Joe Biden’s ability to bring Washington together.
Democrats used a piece of procedural trickery called “reconciliation” to get this pandemic package through on a basic majority vote. The gimmick is historically a once-a-year out, although Democrats might avail themselves of it again later this year for an infrastructure package. Most other votes in the Senate are going to require 60 votes, meaning at least 10 Republicans are going to have to cross the party line. With 62% of voters telling the Monmouth University poll they support pandemic relief, including 33% of Republicans, this should have been the easiest bill for Democrats to get support from across the aisle, compared to future priorities like criminal justice reform and immigration.
But Republicans stood in lockstep against the Democrats, denying them a single vote in the House and in the Senate on the bill. Unlike previous pandemic packages, the straight party-line vote shows two things. One, how Democrats were willing to give Republican President Donald Trump the chance to sign into law relief, even if they weren’t keen on some of the details. And, two, how Republicans were unwilling to do the same when a Democrat is in the White House.
The shift also illustrates what might be the new unofficial stance of the GOP: Break Washington, and Blame Biden. Elections, at their most pure, come down to a simple question: What have you done for me and what will you do next? If Democrats don’t have much progress to show voters — despite controlling the White House, the Senate and the House — their quest to hold power gets tough. So it’s both logical and craven Republicans to do everything they can to block the Democratic agenda.
GOP leadership’s main objection to the bill — that it was too expensive — is hard to take at face value after Republicans added trillions to the debt during Trump’s four years with heavy spending and tax cuts. Debt in 2020, under a Republican President, eclipsed the entire size of the U.S. economy for the first time since World War II. The $1.5 trillion tax cuts from 2017 have not paid for themselves as promised, and profligate spending only added to the mounting of red piling up at the Treasury Department. Trump’s wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, for instance, is costing five times as much per mile as fencing built under his two predecessors.
So what happens next for the Biden agenda? The White House is projecting confidence. After all, Biden sought a pandemic-relief package that extends unemployment benefits beyond their March 14 expiration date, gets checks to cash-strapped families and sends billions to help state and local governments — and he got all that. But it wasn’t pretty. The Senate set a new record for a single vote: 11 hours and 50 minutes of overnight counting until finally they got to 50 yays. Last-minute handwringing caught Democrats by surprise and kept lawmakers around all night; lawmakers typically don’t start the process until they’re sure they have the votes. A fellow Democrat almost tanked the first major piece of legislation of the Biden era on what was essentially a legislative gimme.
Biden prides himself on his perceived ability to set aside partisanship and to work with anyone. His first meeting with lawmakers was with Republicans in the Oval Office, after all. “The door of the Oval Office remains open to bipartisan work,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier today. Republicans initially framed their opposition to the bill by calling it a liberal wish list. But Biden’s no hyper-partisan brawler and selling him as such seemed a stretch. That’s why they pivoted and now seem to be working to undercut Biden’s bipartisan bona fides.
If Washington is broken and Biden can’t patch it, it could make for a very difficult midterm election in 2022 — much the same way obstructionist Republicans ran against Barack Obama after his first two years in office and picked up a net 63 seats. Which is why Democrats might want to shelve plans for a victory lap and instead consider a pivot of their own, to figuring out how to put points on the board and build a record to run on. Republicans, it seems, have just shown their playbook for the next two years. Democrats might want to revise theirs.
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