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Why Biden is prepared to go it alone on COVID relief

President Joe Biden during his meeting with Democratic

President Joe Biden during his meeting with Democratic lawmakers to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Wednesday. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

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For President Joe Biden, the past is a prologue he would prefer not to repeat. It’s why he won’t wait long before pushing ahead with as much of his recovery plan as he thinks can pass Congress — with or without Republican votes.

The president is likely operating on the correct assumption that, if he succeeds, he will get more credit for ending the COVID-19 pandemic, reviving the economy and restoring relative normalcy to American life than blame for failing to be more bipartisan.

That also explains why the administration, despite its willingness to discuss alternative proposals with moderate congressional Republicans, fears GOP resistance to the size of Biden’s proposal may ultimately require it to seek passage with solely Democratic votes.

Four past events are shaping current attitudes; three stemming from delays that limited the recovery effort at the start of Barack Obama’s presidency and reduced the efficacy of his landmark health reform law, one more recent.

As Obama’s vice president, Biden was a key negotiator when the administration agreed to reserve one-third of its 2009 economic recovery package for tax cuts favored by congressional Republicans and accepted a smaller overall package than many economists felt necessary.

Those two decisions helped attract the three Republican votes it needed to meet the 60-vote threshold for passing the measure in the Senate. But they contributed to the weakness of the ultimate recovery, something for which Democrats were still paying a political price two elections later.

Biden would also just as soon not repeat the monthslong 2009 effort to attract GOP Senate support for the Affordable Care Act. Republicans ultimately rebuffed the outreach, and the bill passed with only Democratic votes. One result was a less inclusive law than the initial House version, which included a voluntary public health insurance option.

The new administration also wants to avoid a repetition of the eight months of extended bipartisan negotiations it took last year to enact additional COVID relief to individual Americans, businesses and states.

By all accounts, Biden faces a far worse situation than Obama did, due to the pandemic that has ravaged the nation for nearly a year, closed most of its schools and cost millions their jobs. He has repeatedly argued the country can’t afford to delay action, something on which both Democratic and Republican economists agree.

And both the White House and its congressional allies have repeatedly contended it would be far riskier to vote too little relief than to vote too much. When Republicans said its $1.9 trillion request was far too much just one month after Congress approved $900 billion in aid, Democrats replied the prior measure was mostly a catch-up bill to compensate for the lack of aid through most of last year.

Biden’s request is designed to meet both current and future needs of individuals and businesses, as well as to make up for the December legislation’s failure to help states and localities whose lagging revenues have forced layoffs of teachers, law enforcement personnel and other employees.

At present, the administration is proceeding on two tracks. One is its search for a bipartisan package that can attract the 10 GOP votes needed to meet the Senate’s 60-vote requirement for most legislation. That was the reason for Monday’s White House meeting between Biden and 10 Republican senators as well as a prior session between top aides and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

But there is a wide gap between Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan and the Republican senators’ $600 billion counterproposal. Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday Biden feels the final package "needs to be closer" to his total than the GOP’s, and the real question is how much of a lower price Biden would accept and the Republicans could support.

That middle ground still seems a reach — the Republicans provide no funds for state and local government, and smaller amounts for schools, direct payments and extended unemployment insurance. That’s why Democratic leaders are proceeding with the second track, preparing to use the congressional reconciliation process to pass a package with solely Democratic votes.

Employed in the past by both parties, it requires both houses to enact a budget resolution that sets parameters for revenues and spending, followed by the passage of a second measure to implement that budget, under rules that only require a simple Senate majority.

It would require the support of all 50 Senate Democrats — with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking 51st vote. Though some Democrats don’t currently favor the full $1.9 trillion, the White House seems to be operating on the assumption a solely Democrat bill would be far closer to its initial request than any bipartisan package.

Either way, the administration hopes for action within the next month to avoid the mid-March cutoff of the supplemental unemployment relief extension in the last bill.

Its goal seems simple: the quickest possible action on the largest possible amount of relief, a recognition its ultimate political success depends on the speed and efficacy it can end the pandemic and restore the normalcy Biden promised.

Failure to heed the lessons of the past will almost certainly mean an extension of the pandemic, a slower recovery and political problems for Biden and the Democrats down the road.

Carl P. Leubsdorf wrote this piece for The Dallas Morning News.

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