Democrats' Covid conundrum: Work with GOP or run them over

“People can talk to anyone they want to talk to, but this country is facing tremendous crises,” said Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chairman of the budget committee. “Elections have consequences. We are in the majority and we have to act. “

Throughout the Capitol, House Democrats are watching duels over how to tackle the next coronavirus bailout – Biden’s first major legislative priority, and one that will be a harbinger for others. The bill would be a tough task just weeks after Congress passed a nearly $ 1 trillion aid package. Now it is also the first visible rift between the moderate and left-wing wings of the Democrats of their party, which is under heavy pressure to deliver.

Some centrist Democrats like Manchin insist that Biden’s package must be non-partisan – like any other coronavirus aid law to date – and say the government must step back from its original $ 1.9 trillion proposal. But many others are unwilling to wait as much needed money is at stake for vaccine distribution and a number of other priorities have been left out of the last deal. In particular, Republicans oppose Biden’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $ 15, and Conservatives loathe spending on state and local governments.

“If they thought it was impossible, they probably wouldn’t waste their time. Your first mission is to find a bipartisan path forward,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (DN.J.) of the Biden team he was with works on a bipartisan approach.

But another group of Democrats – who doubt the bipartisan talks and are anxious to bring more relief – say the only way forward is to work through Biden’s package yourself and use the wonky budget tool known as reconciliation to block the bill by Congress with no GOP votes.

The Senate Democratic leaders, meanwhile, are staking out a middle ground: give Republicans some time, but run over them if they wait too long. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that he would rather have the GOP on board but would move without them if they have to.

“I hope it doesn’t lead to it,” said Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Senate majority whip. However, he pointed out that his party was examining how far it could go with reconciliation, for example an increase in the minimum wage. “In the past, Republicans have changed some rules related to reconciliation to reflect their legislative efforts.”

Getting a party line vote “would send exactly the wrong message,” said Senator Todd Young, R-Ind., Who is part of the non-partisan group of 16 senators that spoke to senior Biden officials on Sunday. “We have to be united and come to a certain consensus.”

Additionally, the Democrats only control 50 Senate seats and 221 house seats. That means passing a bill on a party line requires unity in lockstep, which is not easy: just ask the Republicans who did not overturn Obamacare 2017 with reconciliation.

And for now, Democrats have ruled out eviscerating the filibuster, restricting their options for reconciliation, or recruiting 10 Senate Republicans to aid coronavirus. Several centrist GOP senators opposed the Biden government’s plan over the weekend.

Even if they decide to ditch the idea of ​​a bipartisan law, the Democrats have failed to agree on how big the partisan effort should be. Sanders and others have argued that through the budget process, Democrats can force huge policy changes like a minimum wage of $ 15 – a longstanding progressive priority – even if it would require a virtually unprecedented undermining of Senate rules and potentially enable the GOP to these take similar steps down the line.

Any provision in a reconciliation package must meet what is known as the Byrd Rule, which means that it must have a significant impact on the federal government’s income, expenditure or debt. Ultimately, it is up to the Senate MP to decide what qualifies – although some Democrats are pushing to overrule the MP if the minimum wage increase is rejected.

House budget chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), Skeptical of the minimum wage that clarifies the Byrd Rule, said it would be the “ultimate change of power” if the Democrats try to enforce it.

“I’m not sure it’s the smartest thing to do,” said Yarmuth. “You have to worry about precedents.”

Yarmuth acknowledged that there is also some discussion about creating “pay” for a minimum wage increase, such as imposing a tax on companies that refuse to participate.

Sanders argued that the Senate can “absolutely” pass a minimum wage increase with reconciliation: “We will take the case … that if you increase the minimum wage, people will be less dependent on public support and the federal government will save significant sums of money. That is the main argument. “

At the moment, the Democrats say they are walking in parallel tracks. Parliament could vote as early as next week to take the first step towards a Democrat-only law by passing a budget resolution containing instructions on unlocking reconciliation as bipartisan talks continue in both houses. The legislature will introduce this budget on Monday.

Democrats say they have no choice but to move on with the reconciliation now as it would likely take several weeks for Democrats to decide to use the privileged procedure.

“If we want to use reconciliation, we have to get on with it pretty soon, but that doesn’t prevent a negotiated package either,” said Yarmuth. “In the worst case it is plan A and in the best case plan B.”

Durbin said Senate Democrats have not made a final decision on when to move forward with a budget resolution. This opens up a vote and unlimited amending votes, and Biden has to get his cabinet ratified before the impeachment process, which is due to begin the week of February 8th.

In initial talks with the Biden administration, both Republicans and Democrats in this group were left with few answers about what money was left of the $ 900 billion December bill and what was needed. A price tag for a potential compromise package has not yet been discussed. Given that the last coronavirus bill took about seven months to complete, Democrats warn that this round cannot be subject to the same delay.

And it is clear that there is a lot of pent-up desire in the party to implement its priorities after 10 years without complete control over Washington.

“I don’t think it’s time for half measures,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). “I would absolutely support doing this through reconciliation. The sooner the better, my state is suffering and we need city and state money. “

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