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Moderate Democrats are the key to Biden's success

Moderate Democrats are the key to Biden's success
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It’s been less than a week since President Biden took office, but Washington’s tribal gladiators already are arming for mortal combat. Fortunately, pragmatic Democratic lawmakers are working to help Biden avert a relapse into political paralysis.  

Senate Republicans are bewailing Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to end the pandemic and help jobless workers and small businesses tread water until it’s over. Though few complained when his predecessor broke the trillion-dollar deficit barrier – despite a then surging economy – Republicans now profess to be shocked by the “colossal waste” (Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeySasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote Philly GOP commissioner on censures: 'I would suggest they censure Republican elected officials who are lying' Toomey censured by several Pennsylvania county GOP committees over impeachment vote MORE) of Biden’s “massive spending” package (Sen. Rick Scott). 

Such hypocrisy is galling, and it has tripped the progressive left’s hair-trigger outrage alarm. Activists who didn’t support him in the first place fret that Biden is too eager to compromise in the name of the national “unity” he movingly invoked during his inauguration. They insist he waste no time in pressuring Senate leadership to kill the filibuster so Democrats can steamroll Republicans, at least for the next two years.

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Everyone should take a deep breath. President Biden is anything but a political naif. Having been on the receiving end of Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenators shed masks after CDC lifts mandate Trump signals he's ready to get back in the game Manchin, Murkowski call for bipartisan Voting Rights Act reauthorization MORE’s deeply unpatriotic strategy of total obstruction for eight years, he doesn’t need lectures from sectarians in his own party about how rabidly partisan the other side can be.    

But Biden understands he was elected to save our democracy from an unhinged demagogue, not to join Republicans in fomenting intractable enmity between red and blue America. He also knows from bitter experience that one-party rule is inherently unstable and fuels political paranoia and extremism.   

Biden believes there’s a chance to pull our traumatized democracy back from the abyss of civil strife. He’s certainly earned the right to test his opponents’ willingness to join him in getting Washington – and particularly the Senate – back into the business of good-faith negotiation, compromise and governing. 

He’s backed by moderate and moderately liberal Democrats who hold the balance of power in a 50-50 Senate. Since December, they’ve been reaching across the aisle to Republicans who want to break with Trumpism and show they can deliver concrete benefits to constituents who are suffering the ravages of COVID-19 and the pandemic recession.

On Sunday, the White House huddled virtually with 16 moderate lawmakers, eight from each party (including independent Sen. Angus KingAngus KingSenators shed masks after CDC lifts mandate DC statehood bill picks up Senate holdout Senate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill MORE, who caucuses with the Democrats). While even some moderate Republicans are wary of Biden’s big relief bill, everyone agrees that the most urgent priority and opportunity for common ground is controlling the pandemic. Biden’s Rescue Plan includes $250 billion to accelerate vaccine distribution, increase access to testing and expand paid sick leave. Every day the COVID pandemic persists costs our economy billions of dollars, so each dollar spent on these measures practically pays for itself. They should face no significant opposition.

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The same cannot be said of Biden’s proposal to send all but the richest households a $1,400 per-person stimulus check. Doing so would deliver on Democrats’ pledge to increase the $600 payment in the December relief bill to $2,000 if they won unified control of Congress in the Georgia run-off elections. But moderates in both parties are righty concerned that these payments would be an expensive and poorly targeted form of relief. Fortunately, these concerns can be addressed by lowering the income threshold at which the payments begin to phase out and/or limiting eligibility to households that experienced a loss of income between 2019 and 2020. 

Another obvious way to prioritize well-targeted relief is to extend expanded unemployment benefits, which are currently set to expire in mid-March. In the past, Republicans have objected to raising the federal supplement above $300 per week because it would result in the majority of Unemployment Insurance (UI) beneficiaries receiving more in benefits than they lost in wages. However, with some assistance from Congress to modernize their antiquated UI administrative systems, all states could switch to offering benefits equal to prior wages within 20 weeks. Sending this assistance and extending expanded benefits automatically until states have achieved herd immunity through vaccination or returned to pre-pandemic employment rates should be a bipartisan no-brainer. Other elements of Biden’s Rescue Plan, such as targeted assistance to help cover food, housing, childcare and utility costs, could be similarly structured.

Biden’s proposals to send over $500 billion in aid to help state and local governments safely open schools and maintain services face perhaps the most significant Republican opposition. GOP senators have opposed desperately needed aid in the past because they believe it would be a “blue state bailout.” But both blue and red states are facing big revenue shortfalls and increased expenses due to COVID that jeopardize essential social services. Tailoring aid to cover only these demonstrated needs should address Republican concerns that funds will be misspent and open the provision up to bipartisan support (as it initially received during early negotiations in December).

If Republicans reject compromise on these common-sense relief measures, Democrats should pass some or all of them through either the reconciliation process or invoking the “nuclear option” to restrict obstructionist filibusters. But Democrats should first show the American people that they are willing to give Biden’s center-out coalition a chance so that, if it fails, voters will know which party can govern, and which can’t.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). Ben Ritz directs PPI’s Center for Funding America’s Future.