I can't remember the last time a major piece of legislation was embraced by three-quarters of the American people but we have one now. According to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll, 76% of Americans including 60% of Republicans are in favor of the Biden administration's Covid relief package. "Hurrah," you might say, "the logjam has finally broken and a large majority of the country has come together to support vital legislation!" It's a nice thought but the sad fact is that while 60% of Republicans out in the country support the bill, 100% of Republicans in Washington oppose it. Yes, even our allegedly moderate hero Mitt Romney, who called the plan "a clunker."
We hear ad nauseum that the Republicans in Washington are supposedly so beholden to their base that they have absolutely no agency. It's just the way it is, nothing they can do. Yet here we see them openly defying 60% of them. Apparently, they are only in thrall to their voters when it comes to fealty to Donald Trump. Otherwise, they are free to "vote their conscience." And, as always, their conscience is telling them to dismiss the misery of average Americans, even their own constituents, and pretend to be serving some abstract antipathy to budget deficits and big government.
The pattern of Republican governance has been predictable for the past 40 years. A GOP president comes in, spend massively on the military, cuts vital programs that benefit people, enacts tax cuts for the wealthy, drives the economy into recession and then leaves the mess for the Democrats to clean up while they criticize from the sidelines and try to obstruct everything they do. This is, of course, stunningly hypocritical but, as we know, hypocrisy is no longer operative among Republicans. They are shameless.
But the good news is that the deficit argument doesn't seem to be in play in this round.
Perhaps it is because this state of emergency is felt by every American and the urgency is so real that the public isn't interested in abstractions? Or maybe it's the result of the GOP and Trump willingly spending the money in round one and so people have turned a deaf ear to complaints about it? And it's more than possible that since the incessant whining about deficits for the past 40 years has never once proven to result in the catastrophe they are always predicting, most recently during the last time Democrats had to do the heavy lifting to fix the financial crisis, the public finally sees through it. At some point, people stop believing the boy who cried wolf. Moreover, as the economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has pointed out repeatedly, there has actually never been a better time for the government to borrow money than there is now.
That hasn't stopped Republicans from trotting out various other stale reasons for opposing the bill that 75% of the country supports. Republican Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, for instance, dutifully followed the GOP talking points and tweeted out a few cherry-picked items in the bill to imply that they are liberal pork:
I'm going to guess that all those college-educated suburbanites who fled the GOP in the past four years understand that money for such lineitems represents aid to businesses, institutions and workers and don't find it wasteful at all. Perhaps Republicans don't care about that anymore but it's hard to see how it convinces the 60% of their voters who back Covid relief that the bill should fail on this basis.
One of the arguments that did get traction, however, is opposition to a raise in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. They managed to persuade a couple of Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, to threaten to vote against the package if it contained that provision. The Democrats had intended to include it in the bill anyway, and work on the two spoilers to change their minds, but on Thursday night the Senate parliamentarian ruled that it was not admissible in a reconciliation process which is what they are using to avoid a Republican filibuster. (Republicans used the same process to pass their gargantuan tax cuts for the rich in 2017 and their failed attempt to repeal Obamacare.)
The Republicans no doubt cheered at the news the Democrats would not use other methods at their disposal to include the provision, such as having the president of the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris overrule the decision and then let the Republicans try to find 60 votes to sustain a filibuster. The White House and the Senate leadership ruled that out. Neither does it appear they are going to do what former Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Ms, did in the early days of the George W. Bush administration with a 50-50 Senate, which is fire the parliamentarian when he failed to deliver the decision they needed to ---you guessed it --- pass yet another massive package of tax cuts.
Perhaps they believe that Manchin and Sinema really are prepared to sink the entire relief bill and destroy the Biden presidency before it gets started over the $15 minimum wage, but in any case, there is little reason to think the White House or the Senate leadership will change their minds. Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, put out a statement saying they will try to adjust the tax code and provide incentives in the bill to make $15 a de facto minimum wage. It's a very clumsy way to get this done but they seem convinced that a more dramatic show of strength would endanger the passage of the bill.
Regardless of what the Democrats do, the Republicans in Washington are clearly going to complain that unless Biden is passing their agenda, he is failing to unify the country.
Nobody is fooled. The Republicans have no intention of "working with" Biden on a relief bill. As Salon's Jon Skolnik reported, they've even brought in former Vice President Mike Pence this week to instruct them on how they successfully obstructed President Obama's agenda. They plan to win in 2022 by making the country fail. It's their go-to strategy.
But as much as they would like to party like it's 2009, it's 2021.
Republicans still have Donald Trump out there who is going to do his own thing, always reminding those suburban voters how much better it is that Joe Biden is in the White House instead of him. And this pandemic is of a very different character than the financial crisis of 2009. There is the matter of half a million dead and the atrocious government performance under Trump and the Republicans in dealing with it. After what they did, caterwauling about "the swamp" and whining about bipartisanship just makes them look worse.
More importantly, if the Democrats can get this needed relief out to the people and the institutions they depend on so they can just hold on a little longer, within months most people are going to be vaccinated, the economy is going to recover, kids will be back in school and the Republicans' hope for 2022 is going to be a long shot. I don't think the public is going to be yearning for a return to the Trump years any time soon. And that's all the GOP has to offer.