House and Senate lawmakers pledged to work toward a bipartisan deal on the next round of coronavirus aid, but Democrats are now preparing to ram through a measure unilaterally in a move that will all but shelve a deal Republicans could support.
“I support passing COVID relief with support from Republicans if we can get it, but the COVID relief has to pass. No ifs, ands, or buts,” President Biden told reporters on Friday.
Biden’s comments mirror what Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have warned for days: They have little patience for the GOP and are planning to pave the way for passing coronavirus aid, and perhaps other legislation, with only 51 votes.
Both the House and Senate plan to take up budget resolutions as early as next week that will include language allowing the aid package to pass without requiring the usual 60-vote threshold.
The rarely used tactic, known as budget reconciliation, allows Congress to pass legislation through the Senate with a simple majority if it conforms to certain requirements and directly affects the federal budget. Democrats control 50 seats and hold the Senate majority with the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
“Our preference is to make this important work bipartisan,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said. “But if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation, we will have to move forward without them.”
The threat from both Biden and Schumer threw cold water on burgeoning bipartisan talks between Republicans and Democrats and Biden administration officials.
“It’s certainly not helpful,” Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who has been part of the bipartisan aid talks.
Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion aid package that includes a provision to raise the minimum wage nationally to $15 per hour.
Republicans hope to negotiate a smaller bill that provides funding for vaccine production and distribution and perhaps a new round of stimulus checks targeted at lower-income individuals and families.
The bid to bridge the differences between Democrats and Republicans barely began before Democrats put budget reconciliation on the agenda for next week.
“That’s going send a signal to America, and to Republicans throughout Congress, that this president’s message of unity was rhetoric as opposed to substance,” Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, said.
Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, said there is room for bipartisan agreement. The March COVID aid package was the product of GOP and Democratic negotiations, for example.
But pursuing reconciliation ends that chance, Toomey said.
“If they go down this road, it’s clear that they’re done with that,” Toomey said.
Democrats say there is an urgency to pass a big spending bill and to do it quickly.
Vaccine supplies are running low in many places, and economic lockdowns are continuing to take a toll.
“The cost of inaction is high, and it’s growing every day,” Biden said Friday prior to an economic briefing with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
Democrats have been eager to provide hundreds of billions of dollars to state and local governments to make up for lost tax revenue. The money has been blocked from coronavirus legislation so far because the Senate Republicans, who held the majority until Jan. 20, oppose it. Republican lawmakers contend it would be misspent on underfunded pension programs and to fix other bad government decisions in the states.
Reconciliation would allow Democrats to skirt GOP opposition in the Senate, where the filibuster gives them the power to block bills even though Democrats control the majority.
Democrats justified the move.
Biden administration officials warned Democrats in a phone call late last week that “the economic data are looking grimmer by the minute.”
The officials, including National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, told lawmakers to get the legislation passed quickly.
“Right now, the need in this country is huge,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, told reporters. “We are in the middle of a pandemic and an economic crisis. We don’t have any time to waste, and the Biden response package is what we need, and we need it now. And if we have to do it through budget reconciliation, we will. That’s what it is there for.”
Reconciliation was last used to pass President Donald Trump’s tax cut legislation. Prior to that, Republicans tried but failed to use reconciliation to kill off Obamacare. One of their own, the late Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, voted to uphold the law.
GOP lawmakers warned Democrats could run into similar problems in their own party if they try to pass legislation without GOP support. Thanks to the 50-50 split, Democrats cannot lose a single party vote if they hope to pass legislation unilaterally.
As a first step, House and Senate Democrats will have to pass budget resolutions, which is no easy task given the factional priorities and demands within the party when it comes to spending.
“The process of getting to reconciliation when a party is doing it solo is a real challenge,” Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, said. “So it would be a difficult scenario for the Democrats to get to a point to use reconciliation for a COVID-19 package.”