COVID relief bill fight to test Biden’s promise of ‘unity’

Bipartisanship wish tested as Democrats seek $1.9 trillion while Republican centrists offer a $618bn deal.

US President Joe Biden speaks before signing executive orders strengthening access to affordable healthcare at the White House on January 28 [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]
US President Joe Biden speaks before signing executive orders strengthening access to affordable healthcare at the White House on January 28 [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

In the first big test of whether United States Republicans and Democrats can work together under President Joe Biden, a group of 10 Republican senators pitched a $618bn coronavirus relief plan to the new president at the White House on Monday.

President Biden has proposed a more ambitious legislative package valued at $1.9 trillion and Democratic members of his party are prepared to push the bill through Congress without Republican votes.

The political choice for Biden is stark: fulfil his campaign promise to try to unify the country after years of division, or give up some of what Democrats want for COVID-19 relief to get a bipartisan deal with Republicans.

“A deal is possible,” said Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University.

“It depends on how much Biden wants to set a tone of bipartisanship,” Whittington told Al Jazeera.

The 10 Republican senators met with Biden at the White House on Monday evening after sending him a letter on January 31 urging him to negotiate rather than jam a larger relief package through Congress solely on Democratic votes.

Senator Susan Collins, who is leading the group of moderate Republicans that includes senators Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney and Shelley Moore Capito, told reporters the group held an “excellent” meeting with Biden, but they did not come to an agreement.

Collins said she was hopeful, however, that Congress could pass another COVID-19 relief package.

 

The Republicans had reminded Biden in their letter that, in his inaugural address, he had proclaimed that the challenges facing the US require “the most elusive of things in a democracy … unity”.

The Democratic-controlled House and Senate are on track to vote as soon as this week on a budget resolution, which would lay the groundwork for passing an aid package under rules requiring only a simple majority vote in the closely divided Senate.

Pressure to act

Even before Biden’s meeting with the senators, Democrats filed a joint $1.9 trillion budget measure on Monday, a key step toward bypassing Republicans on COVID-19 relief.

“Democrats welcome the ideas and input of our Senate Republican colleagues. The only thing we cannot accept is a package that is too small or too narrow to pull our country out of this emergency,” Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer said.

Adding pressure on Congress to act, extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid approved in 2020 is set to expire in March.

The Republicans are proposing slimmer benefits, including $1,000 in direct payments to individuals earning up to $40,000 a year, or $80,000 for couples. Individuals earning more than $50,000, and couples earning more than $100,000 would not be eligible.

Biden has proposed stimulus cheques of $1,400 a person for people making higher incomes up to $300,000 a year.

The cornerstone of the GOP plan appears to be $160bn for the healthcare response — vaccine distribution, a “massive expansion” of testing, protective gear and funds for rural hospitals, according to the draft.

Other elements of the package are similar but come at far lesser amounts, with $20bn to reopen schools and $40bn for Paycheck Protection Program business aid.

Senate votes

Winning the support of 10 Republicans would be significant for Biden in the 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker.

If all Democrats were to back an eventual compromise bill, the legislation would reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to overcome potential blocking efforts and pass under regular Senate procedures.

“He will presumably have some difficulty selling the left-wing of his own party on a deal that is driven in part by a compromise with centrists,” Whittington said.

“He might just prefer to get through his ambitious policy and legislative agenda without them. If so, that’s going to sour the possibility of bipartisan events down the road.”

The plea for Biden to give bipartisan negotiations more time comes as the president has shown signs of impatience as the more liberal wing of his party considers passing the relief package through the budget process.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the meeting was an opportunity for Biden to exchange views with Republicans and was “not a forum for the president to make or accept an offer”.

Biden’s view is that the risks facing Congress and his administration right now is that COVID-19 relief legislation would be “too small” rather than “too big”, Psaki told reporters at the White House.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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