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COVID-19 relief's political calculus has flipped

COVID-19 relief's political calculus has flipped
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President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike Biden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot MORE may get another COVID-19 bill, but not necessarily more quickly or with more money.   

Before the ink had dried on last week’s COVID-19 relief bill, Biden signaled more was needed and would be among his first priorities. That may prove easier said than done. Biden faces a political landscape essentially flipped and Democrats are in a potentially weaker position than the one Republicans recently occupied.

In recent interviews, Biden indicated more was needed for COVID-19 relief. Speaking at a Delaware news conference, Biden said, “Our darkest days in the battle against COVID are ahead of us, not behind us.” Calling the recently passed $908 billion COVID-19 relief measure a “down payment” Biden stated, “Congress did its job this week and I can and I must ask them to do it again next year.” 

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With coronavirus playing a large role in Biden’s election and combating it was a primary message in his campaign, Biden’s sense of urgency is understandable. The real questions are whether it is achievable and in an amount that suits Democrats.  

Having a president of their party in the White House is giving Democrats an inflated optimism that this somehow solves their problems for them. A quick look at 2020’s legislative relief timeline should give them pause. The previous $484 billion response was enacted in April — eight months ago. This month’s $908 billion package, the fourth relief measure passed this year, was a noticeably slower arrival than the first three.

Each of these relief packages have come in at lower levels than Democrats desired. These pent-up demands are likely to collide with less means to achieve them, despite Biden’s presidency pushing them.

The most obvious obstacle could be the Senate. Unless Democrats win both Georgia runoffs, they will not control it. Even should they win both, theirs would be the barest of majorities. 

The less obvious, but perhaps more onerous obstacle is their greatly reduced House majority. Currently, Real Clear Politics puts their majority at just 222 to 212 with one seat (NY-22 in which the Democrat currently trails) still undecided. From this majority, in which Democrats can lose just four seats and still pass legislation, the Biden administration has already committed to taking three Democrats away. Special elections to replace these losses will take months — and recall that it took months to reach agreement on the latest relief package.

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As tenuous as those figures are, they are made more so by the impending 2022 midterms. Less than two years away equates to “tomorrow” in Washington, and Democrats fear they could be a “terrible two.” Biden’s two Democrat predecessors had horrible first midterm elections. In 1994, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTrumpists' assaults on Republicans who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid will help Democrats The Jan. 6 case for ending the Senate filibuster Mellman: White working-class politics MORE saw Democrats lose nine Senate and 54 House seats; in 2010, Obama saw Democrats lost six Senate and 63 House seats. 

Such an ominous past makes for a nervous present for congressional Democrats. Thirty-nine House Democrats won by less than 10 percent margins — their average margin being a close 51.8 to 47 percent. Twelve Senate Democrats are up in 2022, and the three with the closest 2016 margins averaged a combined 2.8 percent margin. 

In addition to being nervous, both bodies could be fractious, particularly the House. It is a mistake to imagine Democrats are an ideological monolith. There are moderates and conservatives on whom Democrats’ narrow majority depends, as well as their more vociferous and numerous left. Yet as their House numbers shrank, the left’s influence expanded. The reason? Democrats’ 2020 losses came in moderate and conservative districts.  

The upshot for the next COVID-19 relief debate is that nervous moderates could pull strongly toward a compromise package as Democrats' left wing seeks to meet their pent-up demand for more.   

The election leverage that seemingly should have worked to Democrats’ favor and forced a Republican capitulation over the last eight months — but did not — now works against the Democrats.  

Republicans do not need a quick compromise to aid President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE; Democrats need a quick compromise to aid Biden. Momentum seemed to favor Democrats going into November. Now it appears to be with Republicans, who out-performed 2020 expectations (regardless of Georgia Senate runoff results) and are looking forward to 2022’s midterms. 

Even the just-passed $908 billion package works against Democrats by addressing the most-pressing immediate relief needs. This takes impetus from another rapid relief package. So too, the COVID-19 vaccine’s dispersion. Together, both could be taken as reason to “wait and see” results before sprinting for more. 

Perhaps Biden can succeed where congressional Democrats could not. Democrats certainly need him to do so as they head into 2022. Further, Biden can accept a more Republican-friendly compromise than congressional Democrat leaders were willing to over the last eight months. 

Still, the fact remains that COVID-19 relief’s political calculus has flipped. And its numbers are even less favorable to Democrats now than they were to Republicans.

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.