WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday the $1.9 trillion economic relief legislation headed for President Joe Biden's desk will be a "turning point" that transforms U.S. politics by restoring the country's faith in government.
In an interview as the House voted on final passage, the New York Democrat said the bill was "certainly way up there" among his proudest achievements, after he held all 50 senators in his ideologically diverse caucus to pass it.
"It does so much good for so many people. And one of our missions is to show people that government can actually make their lives better. That's very, very important because if they are not able to see that, they turned to demagogues, they turned to autocrats, they turned to bigotry — Donald Trump," he said. "This legislation has some things that are immediately going to show people that government made a difference — by having a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House."
Schumer said the Democrats — who rejected a Republican push to shrink the bill and passed it on a party-line basis — had learned their lesson after failing to deliver adequate relief in the 2009 financial crisis. He said it returns the party to the economic-populist roots it had under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"The Republicans are making a huge mistake by opposing this," he said.
Schumer's remarks indicate that Democrats are eager to capitalize on the popularity of the legislation and use it to rally voters to their side to protect their slim majorities in Congress. The unanimous GOP opposition sharpens the political contrast between the two parties, as the bill includes provisions such as $1,400 stimulus payments and $300-a-week jobless benefits.
The response from voters will test the new Democratic approach to going big against the Republican vision, honed in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan, that government is typically a source of the country's problems and not a solution to them.
"This is a classic example of big-government Democratic overreach in the name of Covid relief," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday, mocking the $350 billion in state and local relief as aimed at fixing budget problems of New York and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's district of San Francisco.
"This is actually one of the worst pieces of legislation I've seen pass here in the time I've been in the Senate," he said, promising that Republicans will work to persuade Americans of that.
A Pew Research Center poll taken this month shows that 70 percent of U.S. adults favor the Biden-backed $1.9 trillion bill, while 28 percent oppose it. The proponents include 94 percent of self-identified Democrats and 41 percent of self-identified Republicans.
The package immediately raises the stakes in the 2022 election, when Republicans hope to capture control of the House and the Senate. History favors them, as the party in power usually loses seats during a new president's first midterm races.
But some Democrats see the Covid-19 relief bill as key to holding on. Their decision to pass the bill on a partisan basis represents a gamble that public opinion will remain in its favor over the coming months.
Schumer said Democrats will campaign on extending some of the expiring provisions, such as a per-child allowance of $3,000 to $3,600 for parents, and billions of dollars in "Obamacare" subsidies aimed at reducing premiums.
"Look what happened in Georgia: 40,000 to 50,000 people who didn't vote in the presidential voted in the runoff, because we said we were going to deliver things and the voting made a difference," he said. "And they saw it. That's going to happen repeatedly."
The Georgia runoff elections enabled Democrats to capture Senate control by a paper-thin margin of 51-50 after Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock defeated Republican incumbents. The two campaigned on raising the $600 direct payments to $2,000 and touted the need for Democratic control to deliver.
Their victories dislodged McConnell as majority leader and, with the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, allowed Schumer to decide what bills come up for a vote.
Schumer is among the one-third of senators up for re-election next year in New York. Democrats face little danger of losing the seat in the safe blue state, but progressive activists are keeping a close eye on him to make sure he delivers. The relief bill is likely to help him fend off any potential challenges.
"Wherever I go, people say, 'When am I getting my check?'" Schumer said.
"Soon. By the end of March."