Democrats ready to bypass Republicans on COVID-19 relief bill

Democrats are moving quickly to lay the groundwork for passing additional coronavirus relief, with or without help from Republicans.

The push comes as Democrats are under pressure to go big amid new data showing the economy shrank 3.5 percent last year with stubbornly high levels of unemployment persisting into 2021.

Democrats can muscle through a budget resolution, the first step for a coronavirus relief bill, with a simple majority in the House and Senate. Under a plan crystallizing on Capitol Hill, they are hoping to pass it through both chambers next week.

“Congress must pursue a bold and robust course of action to defeat the disease, recover our economy, get our country back to normal. … But if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation, we will have to move forward without them,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the House would vote on its budget resolution next week and floated that moving forward could put pressure on Republicans to support the legislation. Senate Democrats haven’t formally locked in a schedule, but Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that next week was the “ambition,” and incoming Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he will be ready to go with the reconciliation instructions.

President Biden has pitched a $1.9 trillion proposal that includes a round of $1,400 stimulus checks, more help for state and local governments, funding for vaccines and schools and a boosted unemployment benefit. The measure also includes unrelated provisions like increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

But it’s unclear whether the entire bill could survive arcane Senate rules that determine what does, and does not, qualify under reconciliation. The budget process allows for bypassing the 60-vote legislative filibuster but also places limits on what can be included.

The wage hike appears most at risk of being jettisoned both because of Senate reconciliation rules and because, while Democrats are generally supportive of increasing the minimum wage, $15 an hour does not yet have the support of all 50 Democratic senators.

With an impeachment trial slated to start the week of Feb. 8, Congress is facing down an aggressive timeline to get the budget resolution through both chambers before it starts. After that, lawmakers will still need to draft the coronavirus bill, with the House out of session until late February.

Using the reconciliation process without any GOP support is already putting a spotlight on potential Democratic tensions because of slim margins in the House and Senate.

Progressives view the $1.9 trillion price tag from Biden as the floor for the size of the eventual bill, in a preview of the intraparty discussion that lay ahead if Democrats go it alone.

“If anything, we should strengthen it, not weaken it,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said during a Politico Playbook event.

But in the Senate, Schumer will need the support of every one of his members to pass both the budget resolution, which will include instructions for drafting the coronavirus bill, and the eventual legislation if he’s going to do it without a single GOP vote. Democrats have the edge in the 50-50 Senate, since Vice President Harris can break a tie.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — part of a group of bipartisan lawmakers negotiating on coronavirus relief — sidestepped multiple questions about whether he would vote for the budget resolution. Opposition from Manchin alone, or any other Democratic senator, would be enough to throw a wrench into leadership’s plans.

“Right now we’re just working through all the figures and doing everything we can to make sure Joe Biden’s successful,” Manchin said.

Pursuing a bill just shy of $2 trillion is unlikely to garner much, if any, GOP support. Biden’s price tag is largely viewed as a non-starter for Republicans after Congress passed a roughly $900 billion coronavirus bill late last month as part of the end-of-year government funding bill.

A bipartisan Senate group has been talking to try to pitch ideas about making the eventual coronavirus relief bill bipartisan, and the White House and Biden have also reached out to GOP lawmakers individually.

Since the budget resolution is just the first step toward passing coronavirus relief, there’s nothing that would prevent Republicans from ultimately voting for the COVID-19 legislation even if they vote against reconciliation.

But reconciliation is viewed as a partisan tool, mainly because it’s been increasingly used as an end run on the filibuster. During the Trump administration, Republicans used reconciliation in their failed attempt to repeal ObamaCare but used it successfully, without any Democratic support, to pass the 2017 tax-cut bill.

GOP senators are warning that they view reconciliation as Democrats undercutting the bipartisan talks and contradictory to Biden’s pledge for unity.

“This is not consistent with the inaugural address, which said we want to work together, which I said was very good … and here we have an action that is contradictory to that very pledge,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who announced this week that he wouldn’t run for reelection next year.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said moving forward with reconciliation was “certainly not helpful” to the bipartisan talks.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) noted that Congress was able to cut big deals last year on coronavirus relief but if Democrats “go down this road it’s clear that they’re done with that.”

But Democrats are showing no signs of slowing down, arguing that the lesson from the Great Recession is that going bigger will help the economy recover faster. They are also eyeing a March cliff on unemployment benefits as a hard deadline for passing their COVID-19 relief bill.

“I have zero tolerance for delay, I have no patience for wasting time. We need to do it all together. I think that’s the general feeling in the caucus,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) added that Democrats would “like” for Republicans to work with them but “we can’t wait.”

“I’m a big supporter of having an insurance policy in place through reconciliation, and the way things are looking now based on Republican comments, I think we’re going to need an insurance policy,” Van Hollen said.

Democrats say they are willing to change some of the details of the bill but that they expect the overall price tag of $1.9 trillion to stay the same.

“You can take the $1.9 trillion package and identify elements within that might be subject to revision or amendment so long as Republicans are telling us, ‘And with those changes, we’ll support you,’” said Durbin, who is also a part of the bipartisan group. “That should be part of the bargain.”

Tags Bernie Sanders budget reconciliation Charles Schumer Chris Van Hollen Coronavirus COVID-19 relief Dick Durbin Joe Biden Joe Manchin Nancy Pelosi Pat Toomey Pramila Jayapal Rob Portman Susan Collins

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