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GOP gambles against the popularity of Covid relief

Analysis: Republicans are calculating that they can win over more voters in the next election by making everything Biden does controversial by dint of their opposition to it.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., talks alongside Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., on Capitol Hill on March 2, 2021.
By voting that the relief bill will be unpopular in the long term, Republicans are making a big bet against long odds.Samuel Corum / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Republicans took a counterintuitive lesson from losing the presidency and the Senate: never change.

Uniform GOP opposition to the $1.9 trillion pandemic and economic relief measure President Joe Biden signed into law on Thursday is the latest and most illustrative manifestation. Most Republicans voted to defeat the certification of Biden's election. And save for Senate confirmation votes on key members of Biden's Cabinet, congressional Republicans have, almost in lockstep, opposed the major and minor initiatives of the president and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill.

Republicans aren't worried that voters will punish them for voting no on the "American Rescue Plan."

"Short term, it is very politically popular," said Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican strategist and former GOP leadership aide on Capitol Hill. But, he explained, Republicans are making a different calculation about the long-term politics of the law and the party-line votes on it.

"It is politically risky, but Republicans were shut out of the process in putting the relief package together so they are counting on news of massive waste, fraud and abuse that they can point out before the next election," he added.

That's a big bet against long odds, to be sure.

"Unfortunately, Republicans, as I say, vote no and take the dough," Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday. "You see already some of them claiming, 'Oh, this is a good thing,' or 'That's a good thing,' but they couldn't give it a vote."

The relief bill is backed by three-quarters of the American public, according to polling. That means Republicans are moving away from the middle in the shadow of an election in which just a slight shift in the electorate would have delivered President Donald Trump a second term and Republicans majorities in both chambers of Congress.

The intuitive reaction to the elections would be to find slightly more popular political ground to occupy, in part by picking battles carefully. But the GOP's strategy is the opposite. Instead of appealing to a broader swath of the electorate, Republicans are pursuing a strategy of trying to make Biden and his fellow Democrats less popular.

"Democrats didn’t try to make this bill bipartisan; in fact, they actively tried to make sure Republicans didn’t have a voice in this legislation," Senate Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota said on the floor this week. "This bill is mostly just a collection of payoffs to Democrat interest groups and Democrat states."

Thune is right that the legislation is not what Republicans would have written, and that it includes money for items like a union-pension bailout that can't credibly be claimed as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. But neither was it necessary for Trump's Treasury Department to design a business-loan program that gave money to polo-team and private-jet owners.

Thune's underlying point, which reflects the arguments of Republicans in Congress, is that Biden and the Democrats are corrupt. He offers no evidence of this corruption, other than that money went to people who vote for Democrats. He said nothing about the money that went to Republican voters.

Indeed, it is odd to portray people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, unionized workers, and all 50 states as "Democrat interest groups" and "Democrat states."

But Republicans are calculating that they can win over more voters in the next election, and the one after that, by making everything Biden does controversial by dint of their opposition to it. It is an old playbook, dating back to the days when Newt Gingrich helped Republicans flip the House into their own hands after 40 years in the minority back in 1994.

Republicans will give no quarter to Biden and Democrats, no matter the urgency of the issue. Instead of waiting for Democrats to take unpopular stands and seizing the middle, they are apparently intent on trying to disqualify Democrats for delivering on public demands. Crazier things have happened in American politics, but it's not the high-percentage move.

With Republicans refusing to vote for his plans, Biden is trying to redefine the word "bipartisanship." He is using it to describe matters on which any GOP voters agree with his position, instead of the traditional construct that describes bills that win votes from both parties in Congress.

When there were exigent threats to the public under Republican presidents, Democrats in Congress tended to vote with the president. They gave President George W. Bush wide latitude to fight terrorists abroad and at home, backed a financial-industry bailout at the end of his second term and voted for several rescue packages similar to the latest Covid-relief bill under President Donald Trump last year.

Whatever moral compulsion Democratic lawmakers may have felt at each of those moments, they also perceived political risk in turning their backs on public needs, public sentiment or both.

They also voted overwhelmingly against major initiatives of Bush and Trump, but typically not when so many lives and livelihoods were on the line.

Rifle-shot criticisms of individual provisions of the relief measure could prove successful for Republican House and Senate candidates in 2022. But with more shots going in arms and expectations that nearly $2 trillion will give a jolt to the economy, there's a bigger risk that Democrats will be able to pound them for trying to halt America's physical and economic recovery from Covid-19.