Why Biden Should Tell These Republicans Offering a COVID Relief Deal to Stuff It
They’re not bargaining in good faith, so getting more money to the American people without their say-so is the right move politically as well as practically.
It’s a smart chess move, this letter signed by 10 Republicans that was released Sunday announcing that they’d agree to a $600 billion COVID relief bill. It puts them on offense and forces Joe Biden to respond. He would appear to have three choices.
One, accept in the name of unity and bipartisanship and just take what he can get, forgoing a $1,400 check to people, aid to state and local governments, a minimum wage increase, and more. Two, accept, sign a bill for $600 billion, and then turn around and immediately pass as much of the remaining $1.3 trillion as he can through reconciliation.
Three, tell them to go stuff it and pass the full $1.9 trillion through reconciliation. That may be the toughest play here for Biden, but it’s also the best one. Let me explain why.
Option one is probably tempting to Biden, who campaigned on unity after all and who pines for a Senate that works like it used to and would love to be the leader who makes that happen. Option two is appealing as well, because at least he can say he did a bipartisan bill, but he judged that it wasn’t enough and went back and got more.
Option three is the partisan move, and it is probably the least tempting for Biden. It cuts against his campaign rhetoric. The Beltway arbiters of conventional wisdom, to the extent that they exist and matter anymore, will express their deep disappointment. And the Republicans and the right-wing media will howl.
But here’s the political reality, in three points:
First of all, Democrats campaigned on that $1,400. Well, they campaigned on $2,000, but they really meant $1,400 because $600 was already sent out in December. But there’s no question that they told people “we’ll get you the money.” Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff campaigned explicitly on it. A Black man and a Jewish man won Senate seats in Georgia in no small part because of that campaign pledge. That’s a promise they, and Democrats generally, better keep.
Second, these Republicans are probably bluffing, or at least playing a cat-and-mouse game. The 10 includes people who aren’t exactly known for crossing the aisle: Jerry Moran of Kansas, Todd Young of Indiana, Mike Rounds of South Dakota. Just because 10 people sign a letter doesn’t guarantee 10 votes on whatever emerges from negotiations.
Third, that additional $1.3 trillion is for things people need. Biden didn’t just pull the number out of a hat. The country is in a dire situation. We’re still losing jobs. We need to be giving people shots at two or three times the rate we’re doing now. Schools need to reopen. And on and on. These things cost money.
Besides, as much as the Milton Friedman acolytes don’t want to hear this, government spending spurs economic activity. GDP growth slowed down a lot toward the end of last year. One reason was the imposition of new shutdowns, but another was that the government didn’t spend money in the fourth quarter the way it had in the third. The slump “wasn’t just Covid — it was the lack of fiscal support” from the federal government, one investment bank economist was quoted as saying in the Times.
One could argue that the minimum wage increase doesn’t have to be in this package. Maybe it can wait for another time. But Congress hasn’t passed an increase in 14 years. That’s the longest we’ve gone with no increase since the wage became law in 1938. The cost of living has gone up 25 percent in those 14 years. Biden is right—even kind of brave—to use this opportunity to push something that low-wage people desperately need and that some Republicans once supported (seven GOP senators backed the ’07 increase) and that today’s right-wing party implacably opposes.
Bipartisanship is fine if it’s genuine. If these Republicans were willing to put their $600 billion on the table and then negotiate and ultimately meet Biden at the halfway point of $1.25 trillion, or even a little less, I’d say Biden should probably take that deal. It was reported Sunday night that he's invited the 10 to the White House. That's fine. Hear what they have to say.
So he should listen, but he shouldn’t let himself be played by a gesture of window-dressing bipartisanship if the Republicans won't move off their number. If he can pass $1.9 trillion—which is to say, if Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema will support it—then he should do it.
Will some voters be upset that he went the partisan route? Sure. But most of them will be Republicans anyway, crying phony tears. He may lose some support in the middle. But if schools really reopen and the vaccines are accelerated and the clerks at all those dollar stores in Manchin’s West Virginia go from making $7.25 to $9.75 or so (because minimum wage increases are always phased in over a period of years), then voters will forget about the process questions pretty fast.
I’ll give these 10 a little bit of credit. At a time when their party is defined by kooks and fascists like Marjorie Taylor Greene and pols who know better but still suck up to Trump and coddle Taylor Greene like Kevin McCarthy, at least they’re pretending to care.
On the other hand, all 10 of them, except Mitt Romney, have spent the past four years enabling the rise of fascism in their own political party. And most of them are going to vote to acquit Donald Trump of impeachment, even as they know that he incited a mob to overthrow American democracy, a mob that killed a police officer and tried to kill at least one more and came within about 30 feet of ripping some of their own senatorial limbs off.
So let’s not get sucked in by this idea of “reasonable” Republicans. There are no reasonable Republicans these days (OK, there’s one). There are fascists and cowards. And all of them, even the reasonable one, are going to start very soon with the hypocritical braying about the deficit. So Joe—tell ’em to stuff it.