With his first major legislative win on track to pass Congress early this week, President Joe Biden is already looking ahead to the next policy push on his Build Back Better agenda.
His victory lap may be short-lived.
The expected passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package may give the president a tailwind as he seeks an even larger price tag on an infrastructure bill, tackles an ambitious climate change agenda, and begins negotiations on his campaign pledge of comprehensive immigration reform. But the president’s decision to go it alone on his American Rescue Plan – garnering not a single Republican vote in either chamber of Congress – could sink any promise of bipartisanship as he moves on to the next big-ticket item in his first 100 days.
“I think by not making a good-faith effort, basically it’s poisoning the well for everything down the line,” said political analyst Charlie Cook, editor, and publisher of The Cook Political Report.
Cook said he thought Biden had been positioned to reach a compromise with moderate Republicans given his temperament and his 36 years in the Senate.
“It will be just a strong disincentive to do business with him,” Cook said.
Biden, who pitched himself as a presidential candidate who could break through Washington’s hyperpartisan landscape, has already run into the political realities of his party’s razor-thin majorities in Congress. With the Senate split 50-50, Democrats used a legislative maneuver to push through the COVID-19 relief package with a simple majority in the Senate over the weekend and without any Republican votes.
But that process, known as budget reconciliation, is subject to rules that could make it more difficult to use for the White House’s more progressive policy plans. Without that legislative tool, Biden has few options other than fulfilling his promise of working across the aisle or ending the Senate filibuster, which would allow measures to pass with a simple majority – a move he has so far resisted in his call for unity.
Still, buoyed by the expected stimulus victory and a ramp-up in vaccine distribution that he said will see enough doses for every American adult produced by the end of May, Biden is well-positioned for his next legislative battle, said Erik Smith, a longtime Democratic strategist.
“I don’t think anyone is going to be sitting in a diner or a barbershop talking about how Biden’s use of reconciliation somehow discounts the win,” Smith said. “A win’s a win. No one remembers how many points you score in the Super Bowl, they just remember you won the Super Bowl.”
‘Bipartisanship is not determined by a single ZIP code’
The president and White House officials have repeatedly rejected Republican criticism that Biden is breaking his promise of bipartisan governing by pointing to polls showing the relief package is popular across the country.
“Bipartisanship is not determined by a single ZIP code in Washington, D.C.,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday when asked about seeking GOP support for the next item on the president’s legislative agenda. “It’s about where the American people sit and stand, and the vast majority of the American people support the American Rescue Plan, including Republicans.”
A Morning Consult/Politico poll released earlier this week found broad bipartisan support for the pandemic relief bill: 77% of all voters and 59% of Republicans said they backed the measure.
The stimulus plan, which provides $1,400 payments to many Americans and additional funding for state and local governments while boosting vaccine distribution and extending enhanced unemployment benefits, has been supported by Democratic and Republican state and local officials alike. Last week, 32 Republican mayors were among the 425 mayors nationally who renewed a push to pass the president’s plan.
The more impressive feat was Biden’s ability to hold the Democratic Party together to pass the administration’s first legislative priority, despite intraparty tensions over progressive provisions in the massive spending bill, said Doug Sosnik, who was the White House political director under President Bill Clinton.
Liberals are growing increasingly wary that progressive pieces of Biden’s agenda could be on the chopping block, including his plans for voting rights, gun control, climate change, and immigration, he said. A push to include a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage in the stimulus package collapsed after a key Senate official ruled that it could not be included in the measure.
“It speaks really well for Biden and Democrats that out of the gate, despite the narrow margin that they have, they’re able to hold the party together to pass this,” Sosnik said.
Seasoned hands within the administration – many of whom also served in the White House when Biden was vice president under President Barack Obama – learned early on that it was a fool’s errand to wait for Republican support, Sosnik said.
“You have almost an immovable force in this extended period of hyperpartisanship that’s been going on for more than a decade where there’s a very little political incentive for either party to work together,” he said. “That’s the political environment (Biden is) working in.”
Republicans have shown little sign of a willingness to work with Biden, despite the president’s efforts to court moderate Republicans in the early weeks of his presidency. Biden has twice invited a bipartisan group of senators to the White House for talks on both the stimulus bill and his plans for infrastructure. He also has held several virtual meetings with Republicans and Democrats over other items on his agenda.
‘Dinner table’ politics
Although Biden would have preferred bipartisan support, the most important thing is passing the legislation, said William Howell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. The real “disaster” would’ve been if the president proved unable to “marshal the government” to respond to this pandemic and the economic downturn, he said.
“The final vote tally is off – not just secondary importance – but third or fourth overall importance,” he said. “What really matters, both materially and politically, is whether or not that action takes place. Whether or not the checks are written, support is provided. Whether or not people’s vulnerabilities are not just recognized but attended to.”
But Cook said many in the Biden administration brought with them “the mentality and the scar tissue” that if Republicans wouldn’t work with Obama, they wouldn’t with Biden either.
In a speech to the House Democratic caucus Wednesday, Biden urged members of his party to apply lessons learned in the Obama years and boast about the COVID-19 relief plan once it passes. He recalled his former boss’s hesitancy to “take a victory lap” after the passage of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, noting most Americans didn’t understand the magnitude of the legislation.
“Economists told us we literally saved America from the depression, but we didn’t adequately explain what we had done,” he said.
“We paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility,” Biden said, an apparent reference to the 2010 midterms, in which Republicans took control of Congress.
Biden encouraged House Democrats to not repeat the same mistake.
“Speak up and speak out about the American Rescue Plan,” he said. “Each piece isn’t just defensible, it is urgent and overwhelmingly supported by the people. It’s good policy, and it’s good politics.”
Psaki, who also served in the Obama White House, told reporters Friday that the administration didn’t do enough to explain the 2009 stimulus package “in terms that people would be talking about at their dinner tables.” She said the White House would continue to directly engage Americans on how the relief package will affect them.
Clear communication about a president’s record is a lesson Clinton also learned after the 1994 midterm elections when Republicans seized control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1952.
“We accomplished a tremendous amount but we got buried in the midterms,” Sosnik recalled. “What we didn’t understand well enough at the time was the importance of being able to articulate in a digestible way to the American public what you were doing and why.
But unlike the Obama stimulus bill, Biden’s pandemic relief plan will have a tangible affect on Americans, according to Matt Bennett, the executive director of Third Way, a center-left think tank.
“To no fault of the people who wrote the Recovery Act in 2009, the bill was complicated, and no one could explain it in a way that would have been politically resonant,” he said. “This is very different and a lot more visible, and so the taking of credit will be vastly more impactful.”
The president made a very good gamble on the relief plan that could yield more political capital than he began his presidency with, Bennett said.
The price of going it alone
Despite the relief plan’s popularity outside the Beltway, it is unlikely that momentum from its passage will hurtle Biden into future legislative wins, Howell said.
“The idea that a legislative win begets a subsequent legislative win in this environment is probably asking for too much,” he said, noting the prospect of passing COVID-19 relief was higher than more hot-button issues like immigration or health care.
A legislative defeat would have raised questions about Biden’s ability to pass any meaningful legislation, but its passage won’t be a “springboard to the production of all kinds of landmark legislation – far from it,” Howell said.
“Sure, he can claim victory,” said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush. “Nobody will ultimately know whether it truly is a victory until we see the shape the economy is in a year or so.”
Fleischer said the divisive era in Washington gives Biden cover for not reaching the bipartisanship he talked about in his inauguration speech.
“It gives him some political momentum that he passed his first legislative hurdle, and that’s significant,” Fleischer said, predicting the White House will soon propose a large tax overhaul to pay for the spending. “And we’ll fight about that one next. It’s very classic liberal governance. Not exactly governance of a unifier.”
Fleischer compared Biden’s position after the American Rescue Plan’s passage to Bush in 2001, also months after his election, passing tax cuts, his first major piece of legislation. The Senate was evenly split and Republicans had a small majority in the House. Unlike Biden, Bush got 28 House members of the opposite party to vote with him and 12 Democratic senators.
But the only concessions Biden made – lowering the threshold to an income of $80,000 to qualify for $1,400 stimulus checks – involved moderate Democrats, Cook noted, meaning the president doesn’t get credit for reaching across the aisle.
He said the White House could have rushed to pass some relief, such as unemployment insurance that faced a March 14 expiration, leaving more time to negotiate on the larger package.
“Once you have started behaving in a partisan way, you’ve indicated what you’re inclined to do. And I don’t think this was necessary at all,” he said.
“I think it will make everything harder,” he said. “(The president) got it through, but at what price?”
Biden, for his part, hasn’t given up on working across the aisle. After remarks on the Senate passage of the bill Saturday, the president bristled at the idea that he couldn’t get Republican support on other parts of his agenda.
“We’re going to succeed moving forward,” he said. “There’s a lot of Republicans who came very close. They got a lot of pressure on them, and I still haven’t given up getting their support.”