Politics

Why There Probably Won’t Be a Bipartisan COVID Bill

And how Republicans will try to use reconciliation to make Democrats miserable.

Joe Manchin leans in to speak to Susan Collins in a crowded hallway inside the Capitol on February 15, 2018.
A picture from the Before Times, when UNITY could be achieved without masks. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Jim Newell: Welcome to the first-ever Biden-era edition of Congress Chat, the visually alliterative name I have just now given this sporadically recurring series about deal-making in our national legislature. This will be the first such conversation, then, where I will feel comfortable in it having a longer shelf life than 20 minutes, because the current president—by all accounts—does not screw up carefully laid and coordinated legislative strategy on Twitter for attention. It is unlikely that he even knows how to use Twitter, or the internet, or possibly television on demand. God bless.

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The administration’s first major legislative proposal is another coronavirus relief bill. Biden has requested a $1.9 trillion bill including another round of checks, increased and extended unemployment benefits, state and local aid, a national vaccine plan, money for schools, an expanded child tax credit, a $15 minimum wage, and other delicious items. There was no interest—none—for such an investment on the Republican side, and so Democrats began preparing to use the budget reconciliation process, which would allow them to pass such a bill, under certain constraints, with a simple majority.

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This weekend, however, a group of 10 Republicans—just enough to help Democrats beat back a filibuster—introduced a $619 billion counterproposal. That “gang,” led by its fearsome nomadic warlord, Sen. Susan Collins, is scheduled to meet with President Joe Biden late Monday afternoon.

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Jordan, could you briefly explain what the Republicans are offering and give us your initial thoughts on whether Democrats should entertain this?

Jordan Weissmann: Sure. But first, I’d just like to second what a relief it is that we can now shoot the shit about legislative sausage-making without having to psychoanalyze Donald Trump from afar. Instead, we can focus on psychoanalyzing Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, both of whom are ostensibly rational actors who read bills and are plugged in to at least a near-approximation of objective reality.*

Anyway, I think the main thing Republicans are offering right now is 10 potential votes on a piece of paper that says “COVID relief.”

It’s an upgrade from where bipartisan discussions started. For a while, the efforts by moderates in Congress were led by a “gang of 16“ that only included eight Republicans, who on their own would not have been able to break a filibuster. This gave Democratic leaders essentially no incentive to veer from their plan to pass a bill through the budget reconciliation process, since all Republicans could offer was a chance for Joe Biden to claim a bipartisan accomplishment in return for slicing down the size of the package.

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The addition of Sens. Thom Tillis and Mike Rounds to the club means that, in theory, this group could push a relief bill over the finish line with a full 60 votes, giving Democrats reason to at least consider negotiating with them. But the opening bid they’ve made leaves a lot to be desired.

Jim: Right. It’s not in the same ballpark, or even the same sport, and consists of substantially lower sums and a narrower scope than what Democrats are pursuing. There’s nothing for state and local aid, for example, which may not be the sexiest item in Democrats’ wishlist but may be the most important.

The generous way to look at this is Republicans are showing Biden what the bipartisan market will bear. In doing so, though, they make the decision for Biden simple: The offer is not a workable number, given what Democrats have promised, so it confirms the necessity of moving the package through reconciliation. In a world of adults, there would be no need for everyone to get so worked up about this. It’s a business decision. What I suspect will happen (/is happening) is Republicans, having introduced an offer they knew was too skimpy for Democrats to engage with, will scream that Democrats poisoned the well on Biden’s “unity” message by trying to pass their own bill with their own votes. And if Republicans have no fingerprints on it, they give themselves permission to message against it as some “big government power grab” or whatever their pollsters settle on.

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Jordan: I think there’s a strong chance you’re right, though obviously something could emerge from this afternoon’s talks. The way I see it, there are basically two conceivable paths to a bipartisan deal, neither of which Republicans seem committed to.

The first would be for GOP moderates to agree on a bill that ticks off most of the Democrats’ major priorities—including unemployment insurance, checks, aid for state and local government—but spends a bit less money on each of them, while ditching some of the bells and whistles Biden tacked onto his proposal, like beefing up Obamacare subsidies or increasing the minimum wage. That would require them to swallow some things they don’t particularly want—like the (not actually just for) blue state bailouts their party spent months warning about—but would give the gang a chance to paint itself as a group of “responsible” actors cooling off the Democratic Party’s supposedly wilder, spendthrift impulses, while Biden would get a chance to make good on his promise of bipartisanship.

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The second path would be for Republicans to agree on a much narrower bill covering the items both sides more or less like, at funding levels that are at least in the same galaxy as what Democrats have proposed—basically vaccines, checks, and extending federal unemployment insurance programs past March, since we’re clearly going to need them longer.

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The idea here is that you’d get a quick bipartisan piece of legislation, and then Democrats could do the stuff Republicans hate later on in a reconciliation bill of their own. There’s a real potential upside to that for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Biden, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, having to do with parliamentary strategy (without getting into the dull details, it might free up an extra reconciliation bill for other priorities, depending on exactly how they played things).

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But Republicans aren’t really offering either of those options. Instead, they served up a narrower bill that spends less on each priority it does address, and would require Democrats to break campaign promises they made during the Georgia runoffs (particularly when it comes to stimulus checks—Republicans want to deliver $1,000 compared with Democrats’ $1,400, and to send them to a significantly smaller number of households). The menu is limited, and the portion sizes are terrible.

Jim: If the Republican group had opened with something in the neighborhood of a trillion or a little bit more, it may have made that pathway more enticing for Democrats. Then you would have negotiable numbers. I don’t think Republicans’ real leverage is necessarily the message that Biden isn’t living up to his “unity” pledge, which is more designed to work the refs inside the Beltway, like the Washington Post editorial board. Their more effective argument—and one that I don’t think is fully appreciated yet—is how difficult reconciliation is going to be for the Democrats. Both the procedural hurdles and then getting a bill that all 50 Democrats can agree to. The price tag is likely going to come down anyway to appease Manchin and Sinema. So if Republicans had introduced an offer that you could foresee leading to a bipartisan endgame of around $1.4, $1.5 trillion, it would’ve been much more appetizing for the administration. But Republicans don’t have 10 votes for something like that, and may not have any.

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As for the second option of splitting it up, what I understand from the Hill is that Democrats are leery about plucking out all of the popular stuff and passing it quickly, because then it makes the remaining parts more difficult to pass later on.

Jordan: Possibly! I think state and local aid is pretty popular. But the procedural difficulties with reconciliation are also a big part of the reason Democrats don’t want to waste time if Republicans show up with an offer they don’t believe is serious.

Senate leaders think that they need to get rolling on a reconciliation bill this week, or the process runs into the impeachment trial. And if that happens, the country could find itself getting close to March (and the next cliff when unemployment insurance runs out) without additional aid. So there isn’t a lot of time to sit at the table while Susan Collins beseeches Biden to think about unity.

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Also—I can’t emphasize this enough—the top-line numbers aren’t the only problem here. If Biden accepted anything remotely similar to the Republican plan for checks, the left would go nuts. You remember $1,400 =/= $2,000–gate!

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Jim: Right, and that’s also why “just split off vaccines and checks and pass it on a quick bipartisan vote” doesn’t work either. Republicans wouldn’t want the same vaccines-and-checks legislation that Democrats want.

Jordan: So let’s assume the chances for a bipartisan bill die a quick death after today. How do you think Joe Manchin reacts? (Thus begins the psychoanalysis portion of the chat.)

Jim: Yes, let us delve INTO THE MIND OF A MANCHIN …

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Jordan: Camera cuts to a smoldering brick of coal.

Jim: If you’re the swing vote on a party-line piece of legislation, you have incredible power to shape that legislation. He can effectively name his price if the bidding is upward. (If his price is that he wants to spend less, then he would have to contend with, say, Bernie Sanders, who could withdraw his own support.) But one reason you see moderates wanting the bipartisan path is that, politically, it gives them cover. There’s going to be a “vote-a-rama” to pass the budget resolution that tees up reconciliation, for example, and that allows Republicans to force unlimited, tough amendment votes on moderate and vulnerable members. If there’s something unpopular in the package—and Republicans will work diligently to ensure that something is made to be unpopular—all centrist and vulnerable members will be tagged as “the Deciding Vote” for whatever it is (Full Communism). It’s not just Manchin, who’s been long signaling that he won’t run for reelection anyway. It’s Sinema, too. Maybe it’s Mark Kelly, who’s up for reelection in Arizona in 2022. He’s so new that I haven’t determined his vibe yet. So reconciliation gives fence-sitters great policymaking opportunities but also a lot of political headaches. There are self-preservation reasons for Manchin and Sinema to vow never to get rid of the filibuster.

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Jordan: I have heard … rumors … about Mark Kelly.

Jim: Unverified gossip? Do share in this public forum!

Jordan: I would never repeat thirdhand, off-the-record chitchat. But I’ll just say that the desert does not appear to be a hospitable environment for democratic socialism.

Jim: In other words, maybe we should expect his politics to reflect his political circumstances? HOW DARE HE!

Jordan: Anyway, the vote-a-rama could require a bit of pain, but it’s never clear to me how much those “tough” amendment votes really matter in the scheme of things.

Meanwhile, it looks like Jim Justice, the Republican governor of West Virginia, just gave Manchin all the political cover he could ever want by saying Congress shouldn’t worry about spending huge sums of cash. Actual quote: “If we actually throw away some money right now, so what!?”

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Jim: It’s enough of a pain that Manchin would prefer to see through this unlikely marriage of Joe Biden and Mike Rounds.

Jordan: That may be. The flip side is that the relatively new moderates also know they owe Chuck Schumer, who basically sits atop the Senate fundraising machine, and right now seems like he has very little patience for delay.

Jim: Well, Schumer needs them, too. The bigger point here is just that whenever you move to a party-line path without buy-in from the minority, the minority will do whatever it can to make your life hell. Vulnerable members don’t love that. That the project Democrats are embarking on, though, is giving people money without offsetting the cost, it seems like a pretty worthwhile trade-off. There aren’t the knotty downsides of tax or health care reform here, which creates winners and losers.

Jordan: The one thing that actually unifies Americans: the joy of getting cold cash in the mail (or wired via direct deposit).

Correction, Feb. 1, 2021: This article originally misspelled Kyrsten Sinema’s first name.

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