Joe Biden’s Vow To Work With Republicans Is Getting Its First Big Test

By Robbie Estrada

President Joe Biden wants to work with Republicans and pass a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package. Unfortunately for him, he might have to choose on or the other. 

Senate Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they don’t support Biden’s proposal, which would give $1,400 stimulus checks to people making less than $75,000 annually, and couples making less than $150,000, $400 a week for supplemental unemployment insurance through September, several hundreds of millions for increased vaccine distribution and re-opening schools, and a $15 minimum wage. 

Republicans want a smaller, more targeted Covid-19 relief bill. They are eager to funnel money towards Covid-19 vaccine distribution and have demonstrated some support for a more targeted version of stimulus checks. That’s as far as they’re willing to go. Most Republicans want to ensure the $900 billion relief package passed by Congress back in December is spent prior to appropriating additional money. 

“The size of the package is a big question,” moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) recently told reporters. She said the “package should focus solely on the persistent pandemic. It should not be used as a vehicle for a wish list that certain Democrats have,” an overt reference to the minimum wage hike.

Collins is one of eight Republican Senators who are more likely to agree to a deal with the Biden Administration. She’s part of a bipartisan group of Senators who have a direct line of communication to the White House. Their ranks have been growing, but this group is still small. Biden needs 10 GOP Senators to advance the bill past the Senate filibuster. Skepticism of moderate Republicans is forcing Democrats to urge the President not to wait too long before considering other options to pass the relief package. 

“Our preference is to make this important work bipartisan, to include input, ideas, and revisions from our Republican colleagues,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said on Thursday. “But if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation, we will have to move forward without them.”

The White House has insisted that striking a bipartisan deal is its number one priority, and the President’s senior staff are reaching out to Congresspeople. Behind the scenes, both House and Senate Democrats are preparing budget reconciliation bills to pass the relief package, showing they’re not going to wait too long before moving ahead without GOP members. 

“Tell me the Republicans we have on board right now,” said an independant Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who now chairs the Senate Budget Committee and has purview over reconciliation. “I’ve not heard one Republican.”

Time is running out for Biden to agree to a bipartisan deal, and several Democrats are already becoming quite impatient. Chuck Schumer said the Senate would move ahead with a Covid-19 relief bill “as soon as next week.”

The White House is primarily negotiating with a bipartisan group of Senators

The majority of White House talks on Biden’s Covid-19 relief bill have rested with a small bipartisan group of Senators. 

“I prefer these things to be bipartisan because I’m trying to generate some consensus and take sort of the, how can I say it, the vitriol out of all of this,” Biden recently told reporters.

The group of eight Senate Republicans Biden is trying to work with consists of Senators Susan Collins, Mitt Romney (UT), Rob Portman (OH), Todd Young (IN), Jerry Moran (KS), Shelly Moore Capito (WV), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Bill Cassidy (LA). 

Senators told reporters that this group is likely to expand, but still does not satisfy the 10 Republican votes to advance past the filibuster. Even if they did have the numbers, it’s believed that this group is designed to be more informal and spark discussions among Senators, not generate votes. 

White House officials have been reaching out to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Senior officials including National Economic Council director Brian Deese and White House Covid czar Jeff Zients held a Sunday call with the bipartisan Senate group to go over their plan before following up again this week.

“It was quite a useful and productive opportunity to provide that further justification” for Biden’s plan, one White House official said, adding the Sunday phone call was “one of literally dozens of conversations that senior administration officials have had with members of Congress from both parties over the last week.”

A few Senators over the weekend told White House officials that they wanted to see changes such as targeting stimulus checks to needier families, and removing some additional provisions like a $15 minimum wage from the bill’s final text. Biden appears open to negotiation, saying he views the current income thresholds dictating who’s eligible for a proposed $1,400 stimulus payment as a moving target. 

“I give the administration a lot of credit for listening, and I think even today we’ve heard the president say that maybe we can look at targeting the economic impact payments a little bit,” Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) told reporters. “I know the President believes in bipartisanship, but we have an urgent need here. We need to make sure we express our concerns, fine-tune this as best we can, but … we need to come together quickly and make some good compromises.”

In the coming weeks, the main question is how much Biden’s White house is willing to give. Simply targeting stimulus checks isn’t the only thing Republican Senators want the White House to give on. Simply put, Senate Republicans believe the majority of Biden’s proposed bill is unnecessary. 

When speaking to the media last week, Sen. Mitt Romney said “I’m sure they’d be very happy to work with us if we agreed with everything they proposed”. “How willing they are to work with us if we have ideas about taking this apart and having perhaps two pieces of legislation, or perhaps adjusting certain elements, that’s something they would have to respond to.”

Thus far, the White House has pushed back on the thought of splitting Biden’s proposal into two separate bills. 

“We are not looking to split the package, that is not a proposal from the White House,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. Psaki added that Biden believes his $1.9 trillion package is already appropriately targeted to people who need it most, but “he’s happy to have a conversation about any component.”

Biden’s White House may need to reduce their proposal’s price tag for Republicans, and possibly even some moderate Democrats, to support it. 

Democrats don’t want to wait too long before using budget reconciliation

Democratic leaders have a backup plan if bipartisan talks fail: Budget reconciliation.

“We ought to try to do what we can do in a bipartisan way. Let’s do that first — show them that we can start out the new Congress bipartisan,” Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) told reporters recently, adding, “And what we don’t agree on in a bipartisan way, then Senator Schumer and the leadership and the Democrat Party has other means to move things along, and I think it’s appropriate.”

Manchin was discussing budget reconciliation, which is the mechanism that permits Democrats to attach big items to budget bills, which can be passed with only 51 votes. 

“We can get a lot of the Covid bill done with reconciliation,” Schumer recently told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “And that’s something we certainly will use if they try to block this immediate Covid bill.”

Republicans in the aforementioned bipartisan group are the ones advocating for removing parts of Biden’s Covid-19 relief bill, but Democrats Senators in the centrist group haven’t been as eager to scale back. Democrats haven’t forgotten that Senate Republicans used the budget reconciliation mechanism to pass their large tax cut bill in 2017, leading some Democrats to think they should give their priorities the same treatment now that they hold the majority. 

Sanders, the Senate Budget Committee chair, and House Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth mentioned that their committees are preparing budget reconciliation resolutions for the relief bill, which could pass in a matter of days if Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi give them the thumbs up. 

“I hope my Republican colleagues come on board,” Sanders told reporters on Wednesday. “But if not, we’re going forward.”