President Joe Biden in his inauguration speech pledged to unify America, and called for conservatives and liberals to work together and heal the partisan divide in US politics.
But his efforts to enlist Republican support to get his $1.9 trillion stimulus bill through Congress are providing an early test of his bid to rebuild bipartisan consensus.
While his administration is working to convince reluctant members of Congress, the administration has made clear that there is also a hardball option that could force measures through without the GOP.
Republican Senators who were part of the bipartisan group that crafted December’s stimulus bill, including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah, have criticised the $1.9 trillion proposal too expensive, saying some of its elements are unnecessary.
Some moderate Democrats have also reportedly expressed reservations about the bill, with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia questioning the wisdom of sending stimulus checks to richer families.
Their criticism means the bill’s chances of passing in its current form with bipartisan support are unlikely unless they are won round.
The Associated Press on Wednesday reported that Biden is pursuing a “carrot and stick” strategy to get the stimulus through.
The carrot is White House officials meeting a bipartisan group of lawmakers to broker a possible compromise deal, while the stick part has seen Democratic lawmakers simultaneously lay the ground to pass the bill without GOP votes.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday said that Democrats would use a special Senate rule known as budget reconciliation to get the bill through, that requires only a simple majority for a bill to pass.
This means it could pass with the 50-member Democratic caucus plus a tie-breaker vote from Vice President Kamala Harris.
It would remove the possibility of the GOP blocking the bill via a filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome.
That option would cost Biden an early change to demonstrate his commitment to a “unity” agenda would be over, risking a repeat of the partisan deadlock that was a feature of the Obama years.
According to the DC political newsletter PunchBowl AM, Republicans in the bipartisan group are already angry at Democrats planning to pursue a stimulus bill without GOP votes.
The other side of the calculus is that pursuing a bipartisan approach could slow down the delivery of stimulus which its proponents say is needed urgently. Agreeing a smaller amount could limit its effectiveness.
Sen. Bernie Sanders says Democrats will use reconciliation “as soon as we possibly can” to pass a Covid-19 relief package, which will allow for a 51 majority vote rather than 60.
— State of the Union (@CNNSotu) January 24, 2021
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in an interview Sunday warned of the risks of not acting quickly to pass a large stimulus.
“If [Democrats] do not respond now,” he told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, “I believe two years from now Republicans will say, ‘Hey, you elected these guys, they did nothing — vote for us.’ And they will win.”
Sanders, as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said he backed using reconciliation rules to pass the bill without GOP help.
But as Insider’s Jake Lahut wrote, using the reconciliation rule could itself bog the bill down further, with senators able to propose amendments that would take time to consider.
Whichever route Biden takes, it seems unlikely that Americans will be seeing more economic relief in the immediate future.
Reports suggest that Democrats are working towards a deadline of March 4 to get a new stimulus bill passed, the date at which federal unemployment payments for many Americans will end unless they are extended.