Biden’s unity effort falters
This month’s impeachment trial in which seven Republicans joined 50 Democrats in voting to convict former President Trump of inciting an insurrection may be the high-water mark of bipartisanship under President Biden, according to grumbling GOP senators.
Republicans acknowledge that Biden has improved the tone of civility in Washington, but they complain that he and his party haven’t made much of an effort to work with them.
Democrats don’t appear interested in having a real bipartisan negotiation on a COVID-19 relief bill or an upcoming infrastructure and jobs package, the senators complain.
They argue that other than one meeting at the White House earlier this month, Biden has done less to engage with Republican lawmakers on legislative priorities than then-President Obama did in 2009, when Democrats negotiated extensively with the GOP on an economic rescue package and a health care overhaul bill that became the Affordable Care Act, at a time when the party held nearly 60 seats.
Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), who was one of 10 GOP senators to meet with Biden at the White House earlier this month, said Republican lawmakers are waiting to hear back from the White House on a proposal to scale down the size of Biden’s COVID-19 proposal.
Asked if there’s still a possibility of a bipartisan deal, Portman said: “You’d have to ask them.”
“There’s 10 Republicans who said here’s a proposal, let’s work, let’s work together,” he added.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who also met with Biden at the White House, sounded similar frustrations.
“It doesn’t seem like they’re moving,” she said. “So, it looks like it’s their way or the highway.”
“Yeah, I’m disappointed,” she added.
There are of course reasons for Biden to hold the GOP at an arm’s distance, particularly when it comes to COVID-19 relief.
The Biden White House has pointed to high approval ratings for the legislation, suggesting it is the GOP that is taking a risk in opposing the popular bill, which would deliver $1,400 checks to millions of American families.
Biden also was a witness to the weeks and then months of negotiations by the Obama White House on the economic stimulus and health care legislation that ended up winning precious few GOP votes. Most Democrats now argue it was a bad legislative strategy for Obama to waste political capital on chasing votes from Republicans who only wanted him to fail.
“We are not going to make the mistake of 2009 and have too-small a package that took too long and took four or five years for the economy to recover,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters this month.
Yet Biden also promised during his 2020 campaign to seek bipartisanship if elected, suggesting there could be some risk for the new president if Republicans can paint him as a partisan only interested in working with his own party.
Democratic leaders plan to use budgetary rules to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief proposal through the Senate with only Democratic votes. Schumer said Monday that both chambers are on track to pass it by March 14, when federal unemployment benefits are scheduled to expire.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Schumer and other Democrats are already contemplating using a second reconciliation package to pass a larger infrastructure and jobs package through the Senate with a simple majority vote.
“That is being discussed, I don’t know if the final decision has been made,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Monday.
Durbin added that bipartisan support for a major infrastructure package would be more likely if Democratic leaders restored earmarks, which would allow lawmakers in both parties to target spending to their home states and districts.
Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said the size of Biden’s coronavirus-relief plan makes it unlikely to win any Republican support.
“The price tag is so large. I think that number precludes Republicans being able to support it, but we are seeing Republican support for other things that Biden is doing,” he said.
West did note some of Biden’s Cabinet picks have won bipartisan support. Biden’s picks to head the Department of Defense and Department of State, Lloyd Austin and Antony Blinken, won Senate confirmation with large bipartisan majorities. Austin picked up 93 votes while Blinken got 78.
On legislative issues, such as a deal on immigration reform, lawmakers face an uphill path.
Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), both senior members of the Judiciary Committee, have teamed up to introduce the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship to immigrants who came to the country illegally at a young age and meet certain requirements.
But Graham, a close ally of Trump, doesn’t support passing the Dream Act as a stand-alone bill and says he views it instead as a “starting point” and a way “to get more people involved.”
Other GOP lawmakers say crafting a comprehensive immigration reform package along the lines of the one that passed the Senate in 2013 with 68 votes is unlikely to happen.
Republicans complain of little advanced consultation on Biden nominees, and add that the decision to move ahead with an impeachment trial after Trump exited left a sour taste on Capitol Hill.
“I think they’re off to a rocky start on that, but I believe he’s genuine in wanting to find ways to work together,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), one of 43 GOP senators who voted to acquit Trump. “You start with impeachment and then you go to a big $1.9 trillion bill you expect to do with no Republicans — or you certainly create a situation where you can do it with no Republicans — that can’t be a good start.”
A senior Senate Republican aide said the meeting between Biden and the 10 Republican senators earlier this month turned out to be little more than a photo-op.
“They’re not doing anything to do anything bipartisan. They’re not reaching out on nominations; they’re not reaching out on legislation. This is a redux of Obama-era arrogance,” said the aide. “They seem to think they can just ram reconciliation down our throats.”
The aide predicted that passing a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package and an infrastructure package, both by simple majority votes under the reconciliation process, will be the two main legislative efforts in 2021.