“The president is sincere in his commitment to bipartisanship. That’s the way he always operated when he was a senator. And from my conversations with him since the election, it seems clear to me that he wants to continue to operate that way,” Collins added.
“This is the smartest and best place for the president to start on his unity promises,” argued Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “That’s where I think the president has to show the leadership of what he has said he wants to do. … He is the president. So what I think the Democratic leaders need to realize is it’s his agenda.”
Of course, Republicans sidelined Democrats twice with reconciliation in 2017 after winning control of Washington under former President Donald Trump. And many have panned Biden’s $1.9 trillion legislation as too big and too stuffed with progressive proposals like increasing the minimum wage and expanding sick leave.
That chilly attitude from Republicans has informed Democrats’ thinking. They don’t want to get bogged down in endless negotiations in Biden’s first 100 days, particularly after seeing the last coronavirus relief bill take eight months to pass. While a bipartisan compromise would be preferable, Democrats say, they won’t let that supersede the needs of the country.
Schumer (D-N.Y.), the new Senate majority leader, said Thursday that “if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation, we will move forward without them.”
The bipartisan coalition hasn’t given up; it held a meeting on Wednesday to discuss their efforts. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.)., a member in the group, insisted that “bipartisan discussions are still happening with the commonsense caucus. I think we all believe in it.”
Still, it’s undeniable that the group’s wings are in danger of being clipped. The bipartisan crew appeared to be a major power player just a month ago, in part because it appeared the GOP would retain a narrow Senate majority.
That meant that budget reconciliation was off the table, given split control of Congress. Instead if Senate Democrats can keep their caucus united, they can muscle through almost whatever they want. Reconciliation might not be the end of the coalition, but it certainly would relegate the group to backbencher status, at least temporarily.
It “lessens their potential impact, for sure, by just using brute force,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “I think they felt a little bit betrayed by the representations that they were getting about the Democrats’ intentions. And then having their leadership and the White House short-circuiting that and doing it all through reconciliation.”
Democratic leaders aren’t hiding their plans. The House and Senate are expected to pass budgets next week, which will unlock reconciliation procedures and allow passage of legislation with 50 Democrats and Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie breaking vote.
During a call with Senate Democrats Thursday, White House officials Jeff Zients, Brian Deese and Anita Dunn did not express a preference for how to pass Covid relief, according to sources on the call.
“President Biden campaigned over and over on bringing our country together, on working across the aisle,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, who plans to reach out to his GOP colleagues over the weekend. “I don’t speak for him but it’s my strong impression that it would be better for the country, it would be better for the Senate, it would produce better results if we could do this in a bipartisan way.”
During Thursday’s call, Democrats discussed how economists are urging decisive and aggressive action to confront an economic contraction stemming from the pandemic. White House officials said economic data is growing worse by the day, and Senate Democrats agree.
“We just saw the biggest economic contraction in 100 years,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “It’s unlikely we will see another big relief package after this one and so we have to deliver.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday that Republicans could support a reconciliation bill too if they so choose and that Biden isn’t giving up hope that it could be a bipartisan package: “There’s no blood oath anybody signs.”
Republicans see things differently.
“I don’t think there’s a single Republican who would vote for the $1.9 trillion bill,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a member of the bipartisan coalition. “There may be some appetite for Covid relief legislation that encompasses parts of that… but as a total bill, it’s not likely to get Republican support.”
Though the White House considers its proposal a targeted one, Psaki said, Biden is open to having conversations with lawmakers about adjusting any component. Some senators have pushed for limiting whether high-income people qualify for a $1,400 stimulus payment.
Senate Democrats also insist they would prefer GOP support. But if it means waiting much longer with no progress, they’re ready to move forward, citing the need for immediate relief.
During a coalition call Wednesday evening, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) warned that the White House and Democrats are “blowing it” and that moving forward with budget reconciliation would set the wrong tone for the entire administration, according to a Senate GOP aide. Portman also criticized the Biden administration for not consulting with Republicans before releasing its proposal.
Democrats, however, insist that they have reached out to Republicans and would prefer to move forward in a bipartisan way. “I think there’s been direct personal outreach by the president to these Republicans in hopes that we can do this on a bipartisan basis,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said dryly that things within the group are “kumbaya, wonderful.” He also acknowledged that Republicans used reconciliation “pretty good” during their own time in power.
Both Portman and Collins have spoken to Biden. But on a call Deese and Zients held over the weekend with the bipartisan group of 16 senators, several Republicans pushed back at the size and scope of what Biden wants to do.
To some Democrats, that’s a signal enough that it’s time to cut bait on the bipartisan effort and move on. After Thursday’s call with White House officials, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said “there’s a strong consensus to make it a big legislative proposal.”
Reconciliation is the “best way to get this done in a robust way,” Casey added. “If negotiations drag out, it keeps getting smaller — that’s a problem.”