A Deal Worth Trying

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Senator Mitt Romney (R., Utah) speaks as bipartisan members of the Senate and House gather to announce a framework for fresh coronavirus relief legislation at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., December 1, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Signs of life in the legislative branch are always welcome, and the move by ten Republican senators to propose an alternative to the Democrats’ pandemic-relief bill is certainly such a sign.

The group — which includes Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, 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 — has offered a set of proposals much more focused than the Democrats’ on the actual needs of the pandemic response. Both substantively and strategically, what they’ve proposed is a smart move.

Substantively, they would accept the core of the administration’s direct COVID response proposal, including money for vaccine distribution, a huge testing expansion fund, and disaster-relief funds — all at the levels President Biden has asked for. Food-stamp funding would also increase at the level Biden requested. The proposal would extend unemployment benefits at their current increased levels through the end of June (rather than at Biden’s even higher level through September), and would replace Biden’s regressive and misguided subsidy for commercial daycare with more funds for the Child Care and Development Block grant — which gives the states flexibility in providing support for low-income families who need child-care options.

The proposal includes less money for schools than the Democrats’ bill, but would direct it specifically to enabling schools to reopen and stay open. It does provide another round of direct payments to individuals, but rather than an additional $1,400 for everyone who received checks in the last round, it would provide an additional $1,000 and would have it start phasing out at $40,000 of income for individuals or $80,000 for couples. And the Republican proposal does not include an increase in the federal minimum wage (which the Democrats would raise to $15 an hour) or an expansion of the Child Tax Credit, along with a few smaller items in the Democrats’ bill.

Strategically, the move could call the Democrats’ bluff, as their emerging strategy for this relief bill has depended on the premise that Republicans are unwilling to make a deal. Rather than start the new president’s term with a bipartisan relief measure (like the five such measures enacted over the past year), and so maybe putting some substance behind President Biden’s talk of seeking compromise, congressional Democrats have decided over the past week to push their bill through the budget-reconciliation process — an element of the congressional budget process intended to enable the passage of measures that touch on spending, taxation, and entitlement reform without facing the risk of a Senate filibuster.

Just a few days into the new president’s term, Democrats began telling themselves that they had waited long enough for Republicans to compromise and had to move on. As the Washington Post put it on Friday (either sarcastically or just amusingly):

A week and a half into the Biden presidency, Democrats are adopting a more muscular approach to dealing with Republicans, essentially declaring they will work with them if they can but are prepared to move past them if they must.

Well, if they must. The trouble of course is that they made no attempt to work with Republicans at all. In fact, President Biden’s first ten days were mostly a blur of divisive partisan stunts, from yet another “comprehensive” immigration proposal (this time, even further to the left, how could it miss?) to executive actions on social issues and the environment to backing away from a commitment to help get schools reopened, and then this use of reconciliation.

Some observers in both parties say Biden is just giving the Left’s activists some scraps, and doing it early to get it over with, but that it amounts to little and will then let him deal with Republicans on more substantive issues. Maybe. But what he is up to is substantive, and some of it (especially the bizarre way he has started off on immigration) will surely get in the way of potential compromise later.

In any case, it isn’t easy to see the case for using reconciliation (which can only be used twice, or at a stretch possibly three times in a legislative year) for a COVID-relief measure that should be able to get through a normal vote. The elements that make the bill controversial — especially the big minimum-wage hike — may have serious trouble getting through the rules of reconciliation anyway. And it’s not at all clear that the Democrats have the 50 votes they’ll need to break or change those rules for this purpose, or indeed that they have the 50 votes for the substance of this bill either. A fair amount of it has caught centrist Democrats off guard, and the administration’s aggressive tactics (including trying to pressure Democratic senator Joe Manchin by putting the vice president on television in his home state without letting him know) aren’t likely to be very effective.

Republican senators showing a willingness to strike a deal will make those moderate Democrats even less likely to support a reconciliation strategy. And of course, that’s part of the point. In a closely divided legislative chamber (and both the House and Senate are very narrowly divided now) each party should want to divide the other, not unify it, while also pursuing a policy course that appeals to voters and is good for the country. And these goals are complementary — a strategy that can divide both parties but garner a majority is likely to strike for the center and to make progress possible. Obviously this has more appeal to the minority party, since it creates the possibility of outcomes far better than those that would result from the majority getting its way alone. But when majorities are so tight that getting their own way is unlikely anyhow, a deal can appeal to the majority too.

This is just the basic logic of legislative dealmaking. But it has been so long since either party pursued a strategy that made any sense that both are out of practice in thinking legislatively. The Democrats have fallen right back into their failed Obama-era strategies (only with far smaller majorities), and too many Republicans are instinctively inclined to fall back to a strategy that lets them complain on talk radio rather than take part in governing.

It’s too soon to say if the proposal of these ten Republicans will get anywhere. They’re meeting with the president Monday evening, and we can see what comes of that. And if their idea isn’t summarily rejected, it will lead to bargaining, not to the outcome they’ve proposed here. The Democrats won’t simply accept dropping all of their most ideologically ambitious proposals from the bill.

There is surely room to deal on some of those. If the Democrats insist on including some increase in the minimum wage, for instance, Republicans could propose indexing the wage to inflation. Such a measure could raise the federal minimum wage to where it would now be if it had been indexed the last time it was raised (so around $9 an hour), and then increase it every year by the rate of inflation, to keep its purchasing power undiminished. That would provide meaningful help to minimum-wage workers while limiting the potential harm of a very large increase in today’s labor market, and also taking the minimum wage off the table as a political issue going forward. A deal on the child tax-credit increase could be even more straightforward, negotiating on its size or reach — though personally I think Republicans should actually support the increase in the administration proposal.

Both parties need to get used to the fact that the Senate is essentially tied, which means that cross-partisan deals will be needed to move legislation. That should define the sorts of proposals they make and the ways they react to one another’s ideas.

The core obstacle to the Democrats getting anything done isn’t really the filibuster at this point. Generally speaking, especially on divisive issues, a bill that can’t get to 60 probably can’t get to 50 either. Senators Manchin and Sinema aren’t sticking to the filibuster because they believe it’s a hallowed institution but because they would rather say no once on what feels like a procedural issue than say no again and again on substantive issues on which they and their voters disagree with their party’s left-wing activists. Bills that pass will generally need to get the support of the ten Democrats and ten Republicans most inclined to deal with the other party, and that bloc of senators has a lot of power and sway now.

This is a good thing, even if you tend to think (as I do) that ideal policy outcomes are to the right of where that block will tend to be. A recovery of legislative muscles, some clarification of the factional lines within both parties, and a return to at least some policymaking by bargaining and accommodation, is absolutely essential to the recovery of our political culture and our institutions. Republicans should try to respond to Democratic proposals by offering alternatives, and Democrats should try to respond to those by bargaining in return. That won’t make for dramatic policy action on controversial issues, but it will make for meaningful legislative action, which will be swifter on those issues that aren’t so controversial (such as pandemic relief and response) and more durable on those that are.

It remains to be seen if President Biden is interested in any of this. He has suggested he would be, and his inaugural address said as much, but his actions since have implied the opposite. If he is, and if he can resist the pressure coming at him from the left wing of his party, it will be worth the while of Republicans to take up real legislative work rather than persist on a path of pointless posturing and lunatic conspiracism.

Whatever becomes of the ten Republican senators’ counterproposal on COVID relief, it should offer a test of everyone’s intentions on this front. It may not work, but it is the path worth trying.

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