Biden, GOP set to find out if US wants activist government

President Biden and Republicans are making the same bet as they gear up for a months-long spending fight: Americans will agree with them about the government’s role post-pandemic.

While the coronavirus overhauled American views on assistance as businesses and families leaned on the help, Biden’s $4 trillion package goes much further, expanding into areas such as child care, climate change and education as the country inches back toward normalcy.

The question is whether the pandemic fundamentally changed how Americans see the role of government, and whether they’ll welcome or punish Biden and Democrats for their plans in next year’s midterms or 2024.

“I think that’s a fundamental question,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who like most Republicans opposes most of Biden’s plans but has been willing to negotiate on a smaller infrastructure bill.

That the debate is happening at all underscores how much the range of what’s considered politically mainstream has changed when it comes to the role of the federal government.

Democrats have spent decades trying to embrace elements of fiscal restraint, with then-President Clinton declaring “the era of big government is over” in 1996. 

Republicans rode a Tea Party wave to power in 2010 after then-President Obama and larger Democratic majorities in the House and Senate approved sweeping stimulus and health care legislation that had the GOP decrying an activist government.

In response to growing budget deficits and the Tea Party revolt, Obama then signed a debt ceiling compromise that imposed automatic spending cuts on Washington if lawmakers and the administration didn’t cut spending on their own.

Democrats, in retrospect, believe they went too small during the Great Recession recovery with an $831 billion stimulus package, and that the coronavirus gives them a new opening to go dramatically beyond the Obama administration.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) argued that Republicans are increasingly out of step with what most Americans want.

“We’re not very good at the cultural bashing that the Republicans are, but I feel that the Republican path is a diminishing path particularly in this world of rapid change where people want help,” Schumer said during an interview on “The Ezra Klein Show” podcast released late last week.

Schumer floated that Democrats were at a “unique moment” with the ultimate judgment not coming until the 2022 midterm election, where he’s trying to hold or grow his slim 50-50 majority.

“The ultimate way we’ll be graded on the test is what we produce. … We’ll know a lot more in six months,” he said, adding that the party would go on a public relations swing this summer to explain “here’s what’s coming, here’s what Democrats did.”

Democrats are getting a boost from both a steady approval rating for Biden — which has stayed largely in the low- to mid-50s since late January, according to FiveThirtyEight tracking of polls — as well as broad support for the $1.9 trillion coronavirus package and some of the ideas included in Biden’s $4 trillion infrastructure package.

A CBS News poll released last week found that 58 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s infrastructure proposal, including 57 percent of independents.

While only 19 percent of Republicans said they approved the overall plan, a majority of Republicans did say they supported specific elements included in Biden’s proposal. Eighty percent of Republicans support Congress passing more money for roads and bridges, for example, and 74 percent support federal spending on home care for the elderly. Fifty-four percent support more federal spending on public schools.

Nonetheless, the size of the spending proposed by Biden is making even some Democrats nervous.

“It’s a lot of money, a lot of money,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told reporters last week. “That makes you very uncomfortable.”

Manchin is part of a group that has talked about trying to break up Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan into smaller chunks, even as other Democrats talk about going much bigger.

Republicans, who want to win back the House and Senate majorities next year, are betting that more people will come to view Biden’s plan as too big as the economy recovers.

“People like to have things provided for them and given to them, but at the same time there’s a price to pay for that,” Capito said. “His vision is way over the top of what I think is necessary.”

It’s a fundamental difference that makes it unlikely Congress will be able to pass a broader infrastructure bill with GOP support. In order to pass a bill outside of reconciliation — where Democrats can avoid the filibuster — Biden and his party would need the support of at least 10 Republicans.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who would likely need to be among the 10, pushed back on a more expansive role for the federal government in education.

“Having the federal government now take over pre-K, as well as community college, in my opinion is an incursion of the long hand of the federal government in areas where it doesn’t belong,” he told reporters.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also pushed back on the idea, stating on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that “typically it’s not a federal government responsibility.”

Americans have historically been resistant to a more activist government than other western countries. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released late last month found that 53 percent of Americans expressed some level of concern that Biden would do too much to increase the size of government.

And a recent Fox News poll found that 56 percent of Americans would rather have a smaller government with lower taxes, compared to 36 percent who supported higher taxes and a larger government.

Republicans, who have struggled to unify in the post-Trump era, believe Biden’s spending plan gives them a political opening. Though Republicans largely shook off their opposition to big spending under Trump, they are leaning into their fiscal hawk origins under Biden.

McConnell, speaking at events in Kentucky on Monday, drew a hard line against another massive spending package. Instead of a multitrillion-dollar proposal, McConnell said, Republicans were willing to support an infrastructure bill of around $600 billion.

“My view is let this robust, capitalist economy come back without any additional massive taxing or borrowing on the part of the federal government,” he said. “I don’t think we ought to do any more massive additions to the national debt.”

Tags Charles Schumer Joe Biden Joe Manchin Mitt Romney Rob Portman Shelley Moore Capito
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