In a gambit as predictable as it is controversial, ten Senate Republicans are offering a significantly pared-back response to Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief and stimulus package. After they wrote President Biden to broach the subject and request a meeting, he invited them to the White House for talks (it’s unclear if you could call them “negotiations” at this very preliminary stage).
The full details of the latest of many Republican “skinny stimulus” proposals during the pandemic are not available; the price tag is apparently around $600 billion. But from the senatorial letter to Biden and some public comments, it’s clear it matches the president’s American Rescue Plan in terms of money for vaccines and other public-health priorities; provides new money for the small-business loan programs created last year; and extends the current level of federal supplemental unemployment insurance. But the GOP bid is drastically less generous in most other respects. It would lower the income ceiling for receiving another round of individual stimulus checks (so as to target the assistance to those most in need, who are also most likely to spend rather than save the new money) while reducing their amount to $1,000 (from Biden’s $1,400). Money for schools would be curtailed significantly — and it looks like state and local governments would be out of luck, as is generally the case in GOP stimulus plans — along with the rental assistance Biden is proposing. Needless to say, progressive priorities like a higher minimum wage and paid family leave are left out entirely.
The number of Republicans fronting this skinny stimulus proposal is significant: at ten (Susan Collins of Maine is the lead proponent, along with Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Todd Young of Indiana), this group could in theory give Democrats the 60 votes they need to overcome the filibuster that conservatives are sure to offer to stop any stimulus measure. Certainly, progressives (along with key members of the Democratic leadership in both Houses) want Biden to reject this underwhelming bid, or anything like it, and instead pursue the president’s original proposal under the budget-reconciliation process that requires a simple majority vote. Indeed, Nancy Pelosi plans to put a budget resolution on the House floor next week that would authorize such a reconciliation bill.
The Republican proposal represents twin strategies we can expect to see early and often from the GOP: an effort to test (and/or explode) Biden’s talk of unity and bipartisanship, and a full shift into fiscal-austerity rhetoric of the sort Republicans deployed regularly during the Obama presidency but largely abandoned when it was their president spending money. On Biden’s part, he probably wants to test how much “give” Republicans have on COVID-19-related priorities, and he is certainly willing to claim it’s the GOP that is violating bipartisanship with an unserious offer that’s not equal to the public-health and economic crisis.
While Collins & Co. are clearly trying to head off reconciliation and keep a seat at the table in stimulus and other discussions, they have not clearly made abandonment of reconciliation a condition for a deal with Biden. It’s possible Democrats could execute a “both/and” strategy of pocketing the best deal they can strike with this new Republican group and then add to it via reconciliation (even then, certain non-fiscal items like the minimum wage likely cannot be included in a budget bill). But it’s more likely the ten Republicans have no serious interest in a deal unless it reflects a full-on Biden surrender, and no intentions of splitting their own conference otherwise. But Biden has little choice but to play out the string before resorting to more partisan measures.