WASHINGTON — Democrats are discussing a path to bypass Republicans and approve an aggressive Covid-19 relief package on a party-line basis as prospects for bipartisan support for President Joe Biden's top priority diminish.
White House economic adviser Brian Deese and Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zientz held a call Thursday with Senate Democrats as they grapple with whether to cut a slimmed-down deal or use a process known as reconciliation to bypass the Senate’s 60-vote rule to avoid a filibuster.
"The sentiment is this: We would like Republicans to work with us to be part of the solution to deliver emergency help, but we can’t wait, it’s urgent, and we need to double-track this process,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who was on the call, told reporters. “So we will continue to reach out to Republicans, but I’m a big supporter of having an insurance policy in place through reconciliation.”
There was a sense of agreement that the overall price tag for the package would remain at $1.9 trillion, despite efforts from Republicans in the 16-member bipartisan group negotiating the legislation to try to narrow the package, multiple Democrats said.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Democrat, said the party will be prepared to consider a bill without Republicans "if we have to go that route."
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told colleagues in a letter Wednesday that the House is "working on coronavirus relief legislation as a basis for reconciliation, should that step be needed."
The pivot to reconciliation comes after Republicans roundly rejected Biden’s plan, balking at the price tag. It puts Democrats in a predicament: Accept a smaller bill at the cost of political blowback for failing to do enough, or kick off the Biden presidency by passing a sweeping bill on a partisan basis.
If Democrats don't go the bipartisan route, "that's going to send a signal to America, and to Republicans throughout Congress, that this president's message of unity was rhetoric as opposed to substance," Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., told reporters.
Any bipartisan package would have to be much smaller to win 60 Senate votes. Some Democrats, like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have called for continuing the pursuit of a bipartisan plan, and Biden hasn’t given up on that yet as he calls for unity.
"Let's do that first — show them that we can start out the new Congress bipartisan and what we don't agree on in a bipartisan way," Manchin said.
The senator said that as a last resort, reconciliation would be "appropriate" as an alternative "means to move things along."
Manchin wouldn't say Friday if he's ready to support reconciliation, saying only, "We're going to make Joe Biden successful."
Schumer wants a 'big' and 'bold' package
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has made clear he has no interest in a trimmed-down proposal, vowing not to “repeat the mistakes” of 2009, when he said Congress was “too timid” in tackling the financial crisis.
In a speech Thursday, Schumer used the words "big," "bold" and "robust" numerous times to discuss a relief bill.
"Our preference is to make this important work bipartisan — to include input, ideas and revisions from our Republican colleagues or bipartisan efforts to do the same," he said. "But if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation, we will have to move forward without them."
Incoming Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said Democrats shouldn’t waste time on a quixotic bipartisan push and instead pursue a far-reaching bill that includes spending on Covid-19 relief, clean energy, health care and other progressive priorities.
These Democrats are cautioning against a repeat of the first year of the Obama administration, when the economy was in free-fall and Democrats worked to find bipartisan support for a major stimulus bill, which they believe wasted valuable time and resulted in a recovery package that was too small.
Prospects of a bipartisan deal appear slim. The working group has met several times this week without evident progress toward agreement. Nothing further is currently on the calendar, aides say.
Republicans say they favor additional assistance for distributing the vaccine and reopening schools. But they're skeptical of other provisions, including the $1,400 direct payments.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., a member of the bipartisan group, said the meetings have been broad discussions about "guidelines and concerns."
"We do agree there needs to be more money for vaccinations," Cassidy told reporters.
If they go it alone, Democrats have no room for error: All 50 senators would have to be unified in order to secure a partisan bill, and the measure would need to clear a narrow House majority.
The reconciliation option to bypass the 60-vote rule can be used for laws related to taxes and spending. Republicans used that tool in 2017 to cut taxes by $1.9 trillion on a partisan basis as well as in an unsuccessful effort to repeal Obamacare.
"The size of the package is critical for us. It cannot be watered down below $1.9 trillion. That should be the minimum," Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who said her group has discussed her priorities directly with Deese. "We like that this is an aggressive bill."