President Biden’s much-vaunted efforts to secure bipartisan support for his coronavirus package have laid bare fault lines in the Democratic caucus and among centrist Republicans.
The White House has repeatedly said it believes the package is “designed for bipartisan support.” Still, under pressure Monday following a weekend call between top White House aides and congressional lawmakers, Biden said he was “open to negotiate” as he seeks Republican backing.
Biden predicted that talks could take a “couple of weeks,” but the bill faces political and logistical hurdles, including early pushback from lawmakers and former President Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, which is expected to begin the week of Feb. 8.
“Each and every challenge faced by a Biden administration will be exacerbated by the fact that [Biden] will be the head of a coalition government,” according to Trump White House Deputy Legislative Affairs Director Michael McKenna, pointing to the different coalitions within the Democratic Party. “That means that everything will take longer and be more complicated than usual.”
Reed Hundt, a former Clinton administration official and member of the transition teams for former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, suggested the process may take a while.
“I don’t think this will be resolved until after the impeachment trial is over,” he said.
Biden’s push for coronavirus relief may depend on a coalition of centrist Democrats, such as Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and liberals such as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The more concessions are made to centrist Democrats or Republicans, “the more consternation you will see from the progressive Democrats,” said Claudia Sahm, a former Federal Reserve economist. “The president is trying to thread a very tough needle.”
As it stands, Biden’s package would provide an additional $1,400 in direct payments per person, supplementing the $600 checks approved in December. The package also includes aid for rental assistance and food stamps, enhanced unemployment benefits through the fall, a $15 hourly minimum wage, testing and vaccine distribution funds, assistance for schools, and aid for state and local governments, among other assistance.
Biden told reporters on Monday that he is willing to compromise on who would qualify for those direct federal payments.
In a call with top White House officials on Sunday, lawmakers agreed on the need for vaccine distribution money but questioned the overall cost of Biden’s proposal. On the line were National Economic Director Brian Deese, White House Office of Legislative Affairs Director Louisa Terrell, and Jeff Zients of Obama’s National Economic Council, whom Biden has charged with leading his coronavirus task force.
Centrist GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told reporters after speaking with the Biden officials and Senate and House colleagues for more than an hour that “it seems premature to be considering a package of this size and scope.”
This reticence could spell trouble for Biden’s bill in the Senate, where he needs at least 10 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster.
If the bill lacks sufficient Republican support, some Democrats have suggested budget reconciliation as one option. Under this scenario, a Senate bill would need backing from a simple majority of lawmakers instead of the 60 required to end debate.
Under pressure from liberal Democrats during the campaign, Biden signaled an openness to ending the legislative filibuster. Press secretary Jen Psaki last week declined to rule this out when asked several times, stating the White House would not take any options off the table.
Hundt, the former Obama transition official, predicted Biden’s strategy would force Republicans and centrist Democrats to rejoin the president’s agenda.
Biden “is giving the Republicans a bill to vote on that is a matter of life and death for Americans,” said Hundt, who oversaw the review of the government’s economic policies during the Obama transition. “It’s really important to just keep it that simple.”
He said Biden needed to stick to this as the most crucial message and use it to drive a wedge between Republicans.
“You have to try to splinter the Republican Party between the cooperative and the uncooperative,” Hundt said, predicting this could take some time.
He also gave a nod to the procedural tools that the Biden team has declined to rule out, saying: “There definitely are Plan Bs and Plan Cs.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about lawmakers’ initial concerns.
Still, bipartisanship is regarded as an important governing tool, and Biden’s efforts to secure bipartisan approval could help avoid a more divisive strategy.
“There are clearly political advantages” to avoiding reconciliation, said Sahm, adding bipartisanship shows a unified coalition, which is important to policymaking and as a signal to the public.
“You all hold hands and jump together,” Sahm continued. “They’re divided, too, in terms of who they voted for. But everything comes at a trade-off — how much do you have to give up?”
McKenna pointed to a Biden White House “mostly populated by Obama alumni, especially alumni from the second term” as one indicator that officials may be more inclined toward finding common ground than using reconciliation’s more strident approach, which would still require every Democrat to come on board.
“As a practical matter, many of these folks are not likely candidates to evolve into revolutionaries,” he said. “No matter what their expectations, the progressives are liable to be disappointed.”
Hundt cited several potential allies, including Collins.
“Everybody’s talking about how Rob Portman isn’t running again. So that’s interesting,” Hundt said. “Susan Collins doesn’t have to run again for six years. … Pat Toomey isn’t running again. There are a lot of options here.”
He added: “Mitt Romney could have a historical role by shaping the entire legislative agenda almost all by himself.”