The president has changed, but Washington hasn’t
Only a fortnight ago, with Donald Trump in eclipse and Joe Biden’s celebrated inaugural, there was optimism that reasonable achievements, bipartisan ones, were possible.
It may have been a Prague spring.
Joe Biden got to the White House by taming his party’s left and trouncing Donald Trump. Now, in governing, the specter of Trump persists, the left is restless and the prospect for those achievements in the year ahead are dim.
Republicans, hardened by Trump’s continued domination of the GOP, are showing little inclination to cooperate with the new president. If they do, they will incur the wrath of the man in Mar-a-Lago and his devoted “base,” which scares more than a few.
The left, “The Squad” and Bernie bros, argue Republicans never were going to cooperate and that Democrats need to go bigger and bolder. But that too is a pipe dream, as Democrats, in modern history, have never had such a tenuous Congressional majority: a margin of one vice president in the Senate and five members in the House.
It all is playing out in Biden’s crucial initial test: a $1.9 trillion COVID relief/stimulus bill. To pass the Senate, it needs at least ten Republicans; many have complained about the size and scope, though the White House has made clear, privately and publicly, that it is open to compromise.
Over the weekend, ten Republicans, led by Utah’s Mitt Romney and Maine’s Susan Collins, put forth a drastically scaled back $600 billion package and in a letter asked Biden for a meeting. If this is a serious opening bid and they are willing to meet the White House halfway — Biden would be amenable — a deal may be possible.
But many Democrats would never sign off on anything close to the size proposed by the Republicans, who — at least in the letter— make no mention of assistance to state and local governments or rental assistance, requisites for the administration and most Democrats on Capitol Hill.
The Republican plan also would drop the proposed increase in the minimum wage to $15, which may be a casualty in this process anyway.
One Republican provision Democrats should accept is to reduce the size of any individual stimulus checks and to target them more to those in actual financial need.
The best guess would be Republicans won’t move; despite the “bravery” of Romney and a few others, for too many of them fear of cooperating raises the Trump factor. Many also view it as good PR for the next election.
Briefly — after his dismal performance following the election, when he peddled the lie about a “stolen” election, ignored the raging virus and lost Georgia… after he incited the carnage at the Capitol — briefly, there was a sense that he might be rendered an angry and sulking irrelevancy. But Trump’s hold on the party has remained powerful, with only a handful of congressional Republicans willing to consider impeachment.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) went to Florida to “confer” with the former president, aware that his House caucus remains resolutely pro-Trump. Two weeks ago, it seemed clear that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wanted politically to kill the king. But McConnell, who always has his finger up to gauge the political winds, retreated.
McConnell now seems intent on replicating his 2009 stance, when he declared his prime goal was to thwart President Obama.
It’s likely very few Republicans will be reaching across the political aisle, including on the COVID stimulus measure.
That has emboldened the Democratic left, who are insisting the White House immediately turn to “reconciliation,” a process by which the relief/stimulus bill could be passed with only Democratic votes. Pramila Jayapal, the Washington Democrat who chairs the House Progressive Caucus, says the relief package should be boosted to $3 trillion or $4 trillion, must include an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, as well as other items on the liberal agenda. Progressive lightning rod Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) charges the $1,400 individual stimulus check proposed by Biden is a retreat from his $2,000 campaign pledge. (Actually, it isn’t as it’s in addition to the $600 check approved at the end of the last Congress.)
Bernie Sanders is chair of the Senate Budget Committee and will put down a mark that will be more expansive than Biden. Senate rules on reconciliation may complicate any increase in the minimum wage, and the Democrats’ slim majorities will temper other initiatives.
The likelihood is a Democrats-only bill will pass by mid-March — when expanded unemployment benefits expire — with close to the $1.9 trillion Biden proposed. Failure would be cataclysmic for Biden and probably the economic recovery.
But it will be messier than usual, and it will augur poorly for other important items such as immigration, climate change and Biden’s proposal for a public option on health care.
There may be some small ball stuff possible on health care and drug prices.
One big ticket exception may be infrastructure, which draws business and some Republican support.
Most judicial appointments, which only require a majority vote in the Senate, not the 60 percent required to pass legislation, will be approved. But here too, if Biden appoints a candidate seen as very liberal, the appointment may be dead on arrival because it loses the support of a couple of the more moderate Democrats.
Although polls show Americans want Washington to accomplish something — practically anything at this point — the outlook is dim.
Hopes that we could move beyond partisan gridlock may have been premature.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.