(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden and White House officials are siding with liberal Democrats stung by past efforts to reach compromise with Republicans and refusing to heed GOP appeals to scale back the administration’s $1.9 trillion stimulus.
Biden entered talks last week with a group of Republican senators who proposed a bill just one-third the size of his pandemic-relief package. They were the first lawmakers he invited to the White House as president, raising concern on the left he might seriously entertain their counter-proposal.
But on Monday, following a lobbying effort by Democratic lawmakers and activists who sought to keep Biden committed to his own plan, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the stimulus will probably advance under a procedure that requires only simple majority support in the Senate.
“I don’t think the American people are particularly worried about how the direct relief” gets into their hands, she told reporters. “The most likely path at this point is through a reconciliation process.”
Biden’s talks with 10 Senate Republicans had reminded some liberal allies of his role negotiating the 2009 recovery bill as vice president. That effort was kept under $1 trillion to appease a handful of Republican supporters — a concession now regarded on the left as a misstep.
“We can’t let the same thing happen again,” more than 200 former Obama administration officials, including Valerie Jarrett and John Podesta, said in an open letter to Congress published on Friday.
“Obama reached out a lot, and he got a clenched fist rather than an open hand all too often,” Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, said in an interview last week. “It got to the Senate, Obama decided to try to be bipartisan and it got reduced by over $200 billion. Everybody now knows that low-balling that number gave us a puny recovery.”
Biden has indicated that he, too, regards the 2009 negotiations as a cautionary tale.
The $787 billion stimulus he helped negotiate 12 years ago “wasn’t enough,” he said Friday at the White House. “It stemmed the crisis, but the recovery could have been faster and even bigger.”
He said that he’s warned his new negotiating partners that “if I have to choose between getting help right now to Americans who are hurting so badly and getting bogged down in a lengthy negotiation or compromising on a bill that’s — that’s up to the crisis, that’s an easy choice. I’m going to help the American people who are hurting now.”
Democrats laid the groundwork last week for a bill to pass under reconciliation by passing budget resolutions in both chambers. Under the process, much of Biden’s stimulus could pass the Senate with just 51 votes, instead of the 60 normally required to end a filibuster — presumably, all 50 Democrats plus Vice President Kamala Harris. House committees began releasing legislative text on Monday.
Republicans used reconciliation under former President Donald Trump to pass the 2017 tax overhaul and to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act. But Biden’s GOP negotiating partners say they’re dismayed he may abandon a bipartisan approach on the stimulus.
“We passed five bipartisan Covid packages. It’s not a good signal that he’s adopting a take-it-or-leave-it approach right after the president delivers an inaugural address based on unity,” Todd Young, an Indiana Republican who is among the 10 senators involved in the talks, said last week.
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican also in the group, said Monday: “It was a mistake for the Democratic leader to go immediately to reconciliation, less than 24 hours after we had a constructive, cordial meeting of 10 Republican senators at the White House.”
Some on the left have noted that former President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus concession carried political costs. The former president was dogged by Republican criticism that the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis wasn’t robust enough. Trump even tried to use the complaint against Biden in the campaign last year.
“It was a sucker punch in the Obama years in this instance — you say ‘we don’t want a big stimulus, we don’t want a big stimulus,’ then two years later you accused” the administration of not bringing the economy back, said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans. “It’s called snookering.”
Clyburn, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional Democrats met with Biden and Harris at the White House on Feb. 5 to discuss the stimulus. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Pelosi and Clyburn said they’re confident that a bill could pass by mid-March, when enhanced unemployment benefits are set to expire.
So far, Biden’s liberal allies say they’re encouraged by the president’s posture and believe he’s not inclined to cede much ground to Republicans.
“The key question underlying the entire fight is: Did Democrats learn the proper lesson of the Obama years?” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Going bold is always popular, and slow-walking bold ideas is always a bad idea.”
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