Democrats march ahead with critical COVID-19 relief while Republicans whine
There are now 500,000—one half of a million—COVID-19 deaths in America. Attempting to contextualize that, The New York Times created a series of visualizations and comparisons. It would take a 95-mile long caravan of 9,804 buses to carry 500,000 people. The Vietnam Veterans War Memorial would have to be nearly nine times as tall is it currently is—up to 87 feet tall—to carry all the names. Enough people died in the past year to fill Arlington National Cemetery, which holds the remains of soldiers stretching back to the Revolutionary War. And it’s certainly not all the deaths resulting from the virus, just those attributed to it officially. But those are numbers, statistics that can only begin to help us fathom the depth and breadth of this catastrophe. Because thinking about each and every individual life—the people filling those bus seats, individual names engraved on a wall, headstones in a cemetery—that’s just too much.
While millions mourn friends and family who are gone, the Biden administration and Democratic House and Senate can only move forward in trying to restore the lives and livelihoods of the living. This week, their $1.9 trillion effort to do that should move forward in the House. The House Budget Committee took up the full package, the nine committee-approved pieces of the entire bill, on Monday. On the Senate side, the process of running provisions of the bill through the Senate Parliamentarian continues. The key element Democrats are closely watching is a hike in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. On CNN Sunday, Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders said he is “confident that the parliamentarian will advise next week that we can raise the minimum wage through the reconciliation process.”
That would certainly ease passage of the bill, if the Senate didn’t have to take votes on overruling the Parliamentarian on whether that piece of the bill can stay in. If the Parliamentarian accepts it, it will stay in the bill on the House side. If she says it doesn’t stay in, the House could strip it out before a final floor vote, which should come Friday of this week, or possibly Saturday. That means the Senate could vote next week, giving some breathing room to all the people on emergency unemployment insurance whose benefits will expire on March 14 if the bill doesn’t pass before then.
Thus far, the process has proven remarkably smooth, with Biden using his considerable experience and personal relationships to keep Democratic lawmakers engaged and mostly supportive. “Everyone is in the same place,” one House Democrat told CNN. “There are things we want fixed, but we aren’t aggressively opposed. It is the President’s first major package, and there are a lot of people who feel like this is his first ask, so for all those factors people are not aggressively threatening not to vote for it.” There’s also the fact that this is an ongoing crisis that requires decisive and major action to mitigate. Going big now—even though it’s months and months late thanks to Trump and Mitch McConnell’s Republican Senate—will shorten the period of economic pain and help the country recover.
The other part of this is that the package as a whole is exceedingly popular, and Biden’s team has made a point of highlighting that. In last week’s CNN town hall in Wisconsin, Biden was asked what he had learned in his first month on the job about selling such a massive proposal. “I learned based on the polling data that they want everything that’s in the plan,” Biden said. “Not a joke. Everything that’s in the plan.” That message has been reinforced with lawmakers by Biden’s team. CNN reports that in the past three weeks, Biden’s legislative affairs team has met with leadership in the House and Senate multiple times a week, has met directly with 33 House members, and has had meetings with more than 100 key senior congressional staff. That’s allowed members to be included in the process—always a plus—but has also enhanced the legislation.
For example, it includes the potentially transformative boost to families with children that can lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty. It also includes $1,400 one-time payments—survival checks—to low-and middle-income people, everyone making up to $100,000 a year as an individual, with reduction in payments starting above $75,000/annually. The child tax credits will be paid out monthly as opposed to annually, and raise the maximum credit from $2,000 to $3,000 for children between ages 6 and 17 and to $3,600 for children under 6. The bill also provides $400 a week boosts to unemployment benefits and continues their availability to gig and self-employed workers. It provides hundreds of billions in funding to state and local governments and to schools; help to specific industries including airlines, bars, and restaurants; and billions for both COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution. All of which the people—including state and local Republican officials—have been clamoring for.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are trying to work the refs, to get media on their side to say that Biden would really be with them and let them help write this bill if only his totally partisan staff would let it happen. The primary source for this particular story at CNN seems to be Sen. Susan Collins, who apparently leaked the story about how she pleaded with Biden on Super Bowl Sunday to allow Republicans to have input. Supposedly Biden “was sounding out Collins, speaking freely to her and leaving the Republican with the distinct impression that he was receptive to deal-cutting with the GOP.” And also supposedly, the “call quickly turned south after White House staff chimed in, with Collins and White House economic adviser Brian Deese engaging in an exchange about housing funding in the proposal—and the Senate Republican contending there was outstanding money yet to be spent.”
CNN went looking for that narrative from other Senate Republicans and found it. “He seemed more willing than his staff to negotiate,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican. It doesn’t take a detective to find out where this talking point comes from. Here’s McConnell a few weeks ago after Biden hosted a handful of Republicans at the White House: “Our members who were in the meeting felt that the President seemed more interested in that than his staff did—or that it seems like the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate are.”
Never mind that it’s Joe Biden himself who has told Republicans, and the public, that their proposals just aren’t big enough. “What would they have me cut? What would they have me leave out?” he asked reporters, rhetorically, last Friday when he was touring a Pfizer facility. The White House, and Biden himself, have time and again said that Republicans are perfectly willing to join in the effort, but as a White House official told CNN, “he believes that what the Republican group put forward earlier this month is inadequate, and he has not wavered from that view in any of the negotiations around this bill.”
He’s been remarkably consistent with that message since he gave Republican senators their meeting, which was summed up by Press Secretary Jen Psaki. In the meeting, she said Biden “reiterated his view that Congress must respond boldly and urgently, and noted many areas with the Republican senators’ proposal does not address.” She said Biden made clear to them “that while he is hopeful that the Rescue Plan can pass with bipartisan support, a reconciliation package is a path to achieve that end.” He also told them, according to Psaki, that “he will not slow down on work on this urgent crisis response, and will not settle for a package that fails to meet the moment.” Biden did, however, invite them to “continue to discuss ways to strengthen” the package and “find areas of common ground.” Just not by undermining this urgent assistance to the nation.
It’s unfathomable that 500,000 official deaths later, with millions unemployed and some 3.5 million jobs just vanished forever, that Republicans still want to play these games. At least, it would be unfathomable if these Republicans had an iota of humanity.