WASHINGTON — Democrats are betting they already have the key to success in the 2022 midterm elections: the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill that President Joe Biden is poised to sign into law.
The House gave final passage to the Senate-approved legislation Wednesday, enabling Biden to start pushing money out the door. That includes $1,400 checks, $300-a-week federal jobless benefits, and funds for vaccine distribution.
It was a grueling task for Democrats to keep enough members in line to pass the bill. But the next part will be even harder: persuading voters to reward them, and beating back a determined Republican campaign to undermine it after they unified to vote against it.
History favors the GOP as the party in power usually loses congressional seats in midterm elections.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said selling the Covid-19 aid bill will be "a big piece of the puzzle" to hold the House majority.
"Anytime you're delivering for the American people, you're strengthening your position politically. So this is going to strengthen us because it's good policy," he said in an interview. "We should shout it from the rooftops that we are passing historic legislation that will reboot the economy and end the pandemic."
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The legislation includes a per-child cash payment of at least $3,000 for one year and an expansion of "Obamacare" subsidies for two years. The 2022 elections will directly affect the fate of those provisions: Democrats want to extend them, but Republicans may have other ideas if they seize control of Congress.
"They're always ready to help a big corporation or a rich person, but when a working family needs help, the Republicans tell them to drop dead," Maloney said, accusing the GOP of showing "a callous disregard for the urgency of this crisis."
GOP operatives say they intend to highlight the bill's flaws and turn voters against it, which could make it a defining issue as Democrats face major hurdles in passing other parts of their legislative agenda.
Republicans will accuse Democrats of using a virus emergency package to "pass a bunch of unrelated liberal spending," said Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which needs a net gain of one seat to win control.
"Nobody denies that there's some stuff in the bill that's popular," he said. "But the cons of this bill have more staying power than the pros of this bill."
Hartline said the party will run ads against vulnerable Democrats who voted down GOP amendments such as approving the Keystone pipeline, tightening restrictions on money going to anyone in the United States illegally — which Democrats say the bill already prohibits — and punishing schools that allow transgender athletes in girls sports.
A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday found that 70 percent of U.S. adults favor Biden's $1.9 trillion Covid bill, including 41 percent of self-identified Republicans. But a recent Monmouth University survey indicates that the messaging war has just begun, with 52 percent saying they've heard "a lot" about the bill while 47 percent have heard "a little" or "nothing at all" about it.
An Associated Press poll showed 70 percent of U.S. adults approve of Biden's handling of the pandemic.
"Who wouldn't be in favor of the government depositing free money into their bank accounts?" said one Republican strategist who works on campaigns and wasn't authorized to concede that publicly.
The strategist said Republicans will hit Democrats for failing to condition school money to reopenings, and criticize figures like Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., for voting for a $15 minimum wage, which was forced out of the package under Senate rules.
Privately, some Republican operatives downplay how decisive the relief bill will be in the 2022 election. Others lament that their party's messaging has been incoherent — a far cry from the laser-focused attacks on the 2009 stimulus bill or Obamacare that fueled an avalanche of GOP midterm victories.
Still, Democrats have the ongoing task of justifying the $1.9 trillion price tag. Some strategists warn that it would be disastrous for the party if voters see the government spending heavily and don't experience a meaningful improvement in their lives.
And the party knows it faces other challenges, too.
"With redistricting stacked against Democrats and decades of history showing voters delivering divided government during a president's first midterm, we need to pitch a near perfect game," said Tyler Law, a consultant and former aide to the Democratic House election arm.
The price of humility
The financial benefits in the Covid-19 relief bill are more immediate and tangible than the 2009 stimulus package. And now, unlike 2009, there is little grassroots enthusiasm against the Democratic push, with many conservatives more fired up over cultural issues. Some Republican lawmakers and activists are highlighting controversies over racist imagery in Dr. Seuss books to rally a disaffected base.
"We help people, they complain about irrelevant s---," Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, countered.
In a March 6 memo to senior staff that was obtained by NBC News, top White House advisers Anita Dunn and Brian Deese called the Covid-19 relief bill "one of the most consequential — and most progressive — pieces of legislation in American history."
"There’s still much more to be done, and absolutely no room for complacency," they wrote, telling staffers that "the real work will begin" after Biden signs it into law and implements it.
The memo came days after Biden conceded that Democrats blew it in 2009, the last time they had power and had to deal with a crisis. He said then-President Barack Obama, his boss at the time, should've bragged more about his stimulus package.
"We didn’t adequately explain what we had done. Barack was so modest," Biden told House Democrats. "I kept saying, 'Tell people what we did.' He said, 'We don’t have time. I’m not going to take a victory lap.' And we paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility."
But Biden is forgoing one means of self-promotion his predecessor used: The White House said his name won’t appear on the $1,400 stimulus checks to be sent by mail.