Politics

COVID Relief Proved Democrats Can Go Big and Succeed

On COVID relief, at least.

Nancy Pelosi talks to Chuck Schumer as they walk down a hallway together
Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on Capitol Hill on Dec. 20. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

When Democrats won the Senate in January’s Georgia runoffs, they announced they wanted to do “big, bold” things with their newly unified control of government. The question was whether they could actually do anything big or bold, given their eroded hold on the House, their bare-minimum Senate majority, and a Republican opposition with zero interest in helping produce the changes Democrats envisioned.

On Wednesday afternoon, though—after overcoming a bit of Republican procedural time-wasting in the House—Congress sent the American Rescue Plan to President Joe Biden’s desk. When Biden introduced the plan in January, as president-elect, it was unquestionably ambitious, with sweeping, expensive goals on COVID relief for individuals and businesses, first-in-a-decade improvements to the Affordable Care Act, a historic child allowance, and more.

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Given the scope of it all, and the thinness of the party’s majorities, its $1.9 trillion price seemed like a starting point that Democrats would either whittle down to crumbs in negotiations with Republicans—or squeeze down to something significantly more targeted in scope in negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin. Instead, it was shocking to see the degree to which the American Rescue Plan stayed intact as it worked its way through Congress. Democrats passed a budget in February that gave them $1.9 trillion to spend, and on Wednesday, they spent it.

Aside from the $15 minimum wage, which never had enough Senate support to begin with and didn’t comply, in the parliamentarian’s eye, with fast-track reconciliation rules, everything else made it. The $1,400 checks made it. Enhanced unemployment benefits through September made it. A truly historic child tax credit, one of the biggest advances against child poverty in modern times, made it. One of the most glaring flaws in the structure of the ACA, the so-called subsidy cliff, was fixed, and pensions were saved for over a million workers. There’s money for vaccine distribution, schools, bars, restaurants, and other small businesses. States, cities, and tribal government balance sheets were more than taken care of. The costly legislation wasn’t offset with spending cuts or tax hikes elsewhere, and deficit hawks were told to pound sand.

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The “Manchining” of the bill in the Senate wasn’t too severe either, relative to the substantial changes that Senate Democratic centrists demanded in 2009 to the Affordable Care Act. While both the faster phase-out of checks and the trimming of proposed weekly unemployment benefit levels to their present amount were odd things to insist upon, and head-scratching politics on the margin, it’s not as if Manchin was unilaterally demanding the removal of a popular public health insurance option.

According to Schumer, Manchin came around on unemployment benefits during Friday’s long floor delay when Schumer warned him the bill would die if he didn’t. Schumer said in an interview with Politico that if Manchin sided with the GOP on its own unemployment insurance amendment, as he was threatening to do, “the bill probably couldn’t have passed the House. And I told him that. And he understood that.”

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That story of a critical moment says everything about how the manufacture of this major piece of legislation, with effectively no room to spare, came through. Throughout the process, the party was unanimous in its agreement that members could not do anything that might keep the relief bill from being delivered.

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Under those circumstances, the thinness of the Democrats’ majority translated into strength: No one could afford to take the blame for walking away from a bill that needed every vote it could get. That meant that negotiation was a process of discovering the amounts that Joe Manchin, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Joe Biden could all shake hands on, not about discovering whether they all could agree to do it. Senate Democrats’ 50-seat majority did not really give every senator a veto. It gave each senator leverage, but only up to a limit. Manchin found the limit, and got on board.

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The bill was too popular to fail—70 percent support to 28 percent opposition, per Pew’s latest survey. Republicans have been entirely unsuccessful at polarizing that support since they began trying in earnest. (House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s tweet Friday night, in which he reads Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, signaled a retreat from the battlefield.) It’s difficult to gin up a grassroots rebellion against legislation that would deliver the additional $1,400 in checks that the figure to whom the Republican grassroots answers, Donald Trump, had pushed for near the end of his term. That it was deficit-financed, too, meant pain didn’t need to be inflicted on any constituencies to offset the cost. The $470 million in relief for libraries and museums, highlighted by the GOP as a bank shot to activate certain culture-war muscles, didn’t come out of anyone else’s pockets.

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The issue for Democrats who hope to continue checking off boxes on their “big, bold” agenda is that it will never be this easy again.

Consider the next-easiest Democratic agenda item: another big package, focused on infrastructure, which will also serve as the vehicle for Democrats’ climate change agenda. This is the item that excites Manchin. He just has curious ideas about how to accomplish it. While he’s interested in an infrastructure bill up to nearly $4 trillion, he wants it done on a bipartisan basis—and won’t give his vote to move ahead with reconciliation at the outset, as he did on the American Rescue Plan. He also wants it to be entirely paid for through tax increases, and he believes there are 10 Senate Republican votes available to raise taxes to pass a green infrastructure plan of this magnitude. There aren’t.

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The bigger impediment to the future of Democrats’ agenda is the Senate filibuster. All of this heat moving out of the House on a conveyor belt in the last couple of weeks—the For the People Act, police reform, gun control, legislation to boost unions—as well as upcoming legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act is dead on arrival in the Senate so long as there’s a 60-vote impediment to passing it.

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We can try to track each of Manchin’s brainwaves on the filibuster question to guess where he’s headed, but the other votes are just not there to get rid of it. Part of the reason why the votes to ditch the filibuster aren’t there—and not just Manchin’s vote—is that with the 60-vote threshold gone, all of the House’s initiatives would become live issues that Democratic senators would be responsible for passing or not passing. And many of those questions would prove far more polarizing than showering people with money.

The extraordinary legislative victory of the Democrats’ first major agenda item required an extraordinary degree of party discipline. It was a major accomplishment for congressional Democrats and the Biden administration. Now they need to find the same kind of certainty around their less certain agenda items, or it may be their last.

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