“Did Democrats make a mistake by muscling through covid relief on a party-line vote? Will the decision to achieve maximal results in the shortest possible time make it difficult to attract Republican support for subsequent legislative endeavors? Is there a future for bipartisan cooperation — and, if not, what does this mean for President Biden’s prospects for future legislation?
Let’s pause first to recognize the remarkable nature of Biden’s achievement. He and Democrats obtained almost everything they wanted, with the exception of the $15 minimum wage. They wedged into the tax code a revolution in the form of a refundable child tax credit — that is, one that will help households even if they owe no taxes. This help for the poorest families is supposed to be temporary but won’t, and shouldn’t, be allowed to expire. Overall, according to the Urban Institute, the American Rescue Plan would reduce child poverty by more than half.
The $1.9 trillion cost is concerning, given other remaining needs and, yes, the debt. Some elements are questionable, in particular sending $350 billion to state and local governments at a time when most state governments are not, in fact, reeling from the economic consequences of the pandemic, and providing new checks to families making six-figure incomes. Democrats had the votes to stuff all this in through the mechanism of reconciliation; they should have exercised the self-discipline to do slightly less.
And yet: It’s hard to blame Democrats for not wasting time dickering with Republicans in a fruitless quest for bipartisanship. Securing the votes of 10 Republican senators, to get past the filibuster threshold, while retaining the support of Senate and House Democrats, was never in the cards. The low opening bid from moderate Republican senators — $600 billion — only underscored the chasm between the two sides.
Giving Biden an early achievement was not in the GOP’s political interest, which meant it was not going to happen. The clock was ticking — and the memory still fresh of the time the Obama administration lost negotiating with Republicans over health care.
Which raises the question of what this bodes for the future. Some have arguedthat Biden has wounded himself by preaching unity and bipartisanship while practicing hard-knuckle partisan politics. Oh, please. History teaches that Democrats have erred in the past not by stiff-arming the other side but by putting too much hope in its good-faith willingness to compromise. See the fizzled grand bargain on the budget and taxes.
If Republicans don’t cooperate with Biden and Democrats in the future, it won’t be because they are nursing hurt feelings. That offers a convenient excuse for future intransigence, not an explanation. Republicans will agree to a deal with the Democratic majority if they perceive it to be in their political interest — not because Biden treated them kindly on covid relief.
Getting to 60 will continue to be an uphill climb for the Biden administration because of the political peril for Republicans of consorting with the other side, because of the structural bias of the current political landscape against compromise, and because of the urge not to give the president another victory. That does not mean bipartisanship is impossible, just that it will be difficult to achieve. The coming debate over an infrastructure package offers one significant possibility, although one with an embedded problem: Republicans are likely to resist another enormous spending bill even as they balk at the “pay-fors,” in the form of tax increases, that Democrats will endorse.
Where does this all leave Biden and congressional Democrats? If bipartisan agreement on infrastructure is elusive, they could play the reconciliation card again and pass a measure with a bare majority, although that would require unanimity among Democratic senators that may not be forthcoming this time around.
But, as the parliamentarian’s ruling on reconciliation and the minimum wage illustrated, that maneuver has its limits. So the hardest legislative judgments facing the administration in the weeks and months ahead will involve when to hold out for the whole loaf — and when to be willing to slice off an achievable piece.
This is a familiar tension that will embroil the White House in negotiations not with the other party but with congressional Democrats and allied interest groups. One example, both historical and current: whether to press for comprehensive immigration reform, which Biden has proposed but appears unlikely, or to separate out highly popular policies, such as legislative protection for the “dreamers.”
Another, just as pressing: whether to insist on the entire package of voting and ethics reforms — not going to happen without relaxing the filibuster — or to concentrate on the most pressing provisions, such as reinvigorating the Voting Rights Act and protecting against state measures to curtail ballot access.
The correct answers aren’t obvious. If anything, the looming decisions about when to pursue the elusive lure of bipartisanship, at the potential risk of inflaming the party’s progressive wing, will be far more difficult than the initial, sensible choice to go it alone on covid relief.“