coronavirus stimulus

On COVID Relief, Dems Should Go Small Then Go It Alone

Don’t Chuck this up. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last week, Joe Biden proposed a $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package that included $350 billion in fiscal aid to states (or, as conservatives call it, “a blue-state bailout”) and a $15 federal minimum wage (or, as conservatives call it, “Stalinism”). The president-elect then declared his intention to pass this bill through Congress on a bipartisan basis.

Which is roughly as realistic as my intention to sell Mitch McConnell on the Meidner Plan through sheer force of blogging.

“I don’t think it can get 60. Because even the people on our side that would be inclined to want to work with the administration on something like that, that price range is going to be out of range for them,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune told Politico this week.

The three most “moderate” Senate Republicans — Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins — all expressed their opposition to the proposal’s size and timing. “We just passed a program with over $900 billion in it,” Romney told the press Wednesday. “I’m not looking for a new program in the immediate future.”

Since then, a “common-sense coalition” of eight Democrats and eight Republicans has formed, in hopes of crafting a bipartisan alternative to Biden’s plan. The group is set to meet with National Economic Council director Brian Deese in the coming days to discuss potential areas of overlapping interest. The endeavor seems less than promising. Beyond the fact that the “common sense” among this coalition’s Republicans is that no further aid is required, a compromise supported by only eight Republicans is a compromise that cannot win the 60 votes necessary for overcoming a Senate filibuster.

Instead of carrying on time-consuming negotiations with conservatives who are uninterested in broad relief — and incapable of delivering it by themselves even if they were — Biden should pare back his first bill to its essentials: funding for vaccines and $1,400 checks.

The case for this approach, as articulated by The American Prospect’s David Dayen and many Democrats in the House, is twofold:

1) The economic and public-health value of getting to vaccine-induced herd immunity as soon as possible is massive, especially now that new, ultra-virulent COVID strains are in circulation.

2) Distributing $1,400 checks would simultaneously keep America’s most vulnerable afloat while a broader package is ironed out, and fulfill the Democrats’ core campaign promise in the Georgia Senate runoffs. What’s more, thanks to Donald Trump, many Senate Republicans have publicly claimed to support the checks, which are overwhelmingly popular.

Now that a Democrat is president, it’s quite possible that Republican support for the cash relief payments no longer exists (after all, even Democrat Joe Manchin has expressed aversion to the policy). But if the GOP wants to clear up the confusion that Donald Trump created — and inform the voting public that “Americans deserve more cash relief to help them weather this pandemic” is actually a Democratic idea — then so be it. The vital thing is to get a turbo-charged vaccine-distribution program up and running. Democrats can enact virtually everything else in Biden’s plan through budget reconciliation, which enables bills to pass the Senate with a simple majority vote. But since reconciliation is an inherently time-consuming process, Biden cannot get vaccine dollars out next week through it. (In a better world, Democrats would simply abolish the legislative filibuster today, and pass Biden’s full plan tomorrow, but for now the party’s moderate senators are opposed to such a rational course of action.)

The “shots and checks strategy” has backing in the House. But, according to Dayen’s reporting, Senate Democrats are skeptical. Their reasoning is that “popular items can drive Congress to pass a bigger deal, and without them, a bigger deal might get stranded.” Which is silly. There is no big bipartisan deal to be had, but no one can “strand” a big deal save for Democrats themselves. They aren’t the minority party anymore. They don’t need to hold vaccine funding hostage to more partisan priorities; they can just use the power that budget reconciliation gives them to pass whatever relief measures they desire.

No more gangs of eight, ten, or 16. No protracted negotiations with Republicans who can’t even deliver the scraps they concede. As a wise bus once said, “no malarkey.” Pocket the vaccine funding — and either relief checks or the political victory of forcing Republicans to own their opposition to relief checks — and then do the rest your own way.

Above all, don’t let one of these COVID mutants increase the pandemic’s death toll by hundreds of thousands because you wasted two weeks trying to appeal to the better angels of Mitt Romney’s nature.

On COVID Relief, Dems Should Go Small Then Go It Alone