In his Inaugural Address, President Joe Biden called for unity, for good faith debate and negotiation over real issues, for both sides of the political spectrum to come together as much as possible to tackle the nation’s challenges.
A group of Republicans say they want to play ball. But from the look of their proposal for COVID relief, it doesn’t look like they’re all that serious.
On Sunday, 10 Senate Republicans — including Utah’s Mitt Romney — announced their interest in a bipartisan COVID relief bill with a letter to the White House: “In the spirit of bipartisanship and unity, we have developed a COVID-19 relief framework that builds on prior COVID assistance laws, all of which passed with bipartisan support. Our proposal reflects many of your stated priorities, and with your support, we believe that this plan could be approved quickly by Congress with bipartisan support.”
The letter goes on: “We recognize your calls for unity and want to work in good faith with your administration to meet the health, economic, and societal challenges of the COVID crisis.”
On Monday, with this commitment in hand, these same Republicans released the details of their proposal before visiting the White House to discuss it with Biden. In exchange for their support, they would agree to a $618 billion COVID relief plan, less than one-third the size of Biden’s $1.9 trillion package.
Biden’s plan would send $1,400 checks to individuals making up to $75,000 per year and couples with joint incomes up to $150,000, at a cost of $465 billion. The Republican plan would reduce the size of checks and lower the threshold for eligibility. Individuals making up to $50,000, and couples making up to $100,000, would get $1,000, although this would begin to phase out at $40,000 and $80,000, for a total cost of $220 billion.
Biden’s plan would give Americans $400 per week in supplemental unemployment insurance through September. The Republican plan would keep the supplement at its current level of $300 per week and extend it only through June 30. Biden’s plan would spend $170 billion on getting students back to school; the Republican plan cuts that to $20 billion. Biden’s plan would also spend $30 billion on aid to renters and small-scale landlords, $120 billion on child tax credits and $350 billion on aid to states and localities; the Republican plan cuts those out altogether.
In other words, the Republican plan is just the Biden plan except worse — less comprehensive, less ambitious, less generous. And there’s no rhyme or reason to these cuts; it’s just stinginess for stinginess’s sake.
The low price tag isn’t just inadequate given the scale of the economic and health crises, it’s also unserious given the Republican senators’ alleged desire to cooperate in a bipartisan fashion. Democrats have been clear throughout the pandemic that relief must include direct aid to states on account of the impact of the recession on state budgets. Spending cuts on education, public safety and other services will only prolong the pain and harm the recovery.
If Republicans were serious about compromise, they would look for ways to either honor that request or to compensate for its exclusion with a concession: larger checks, more unemployment insurance or money for the expanded child tax credit. Instead, Republicans have taken state aid off the table in addition to slashing or eliminating all other assistance. This is a bipartisan proposal only in the sense that if it passed, Democrats would have voted for it.
The Republican senators seem to think that the bipartisanship ball is in the Democrats’ court, and that it’s incumbent on Biden to compromise with them. But this has it exactly backward.
So far, a bipartisan majority of Americans — 53.4%, according to the FiveThirtyEight average — approve of the job Biden is doing in office. A larger majority supports a Biden-sized COVID relief package, Data for Progress, a left-leaning polling firm, reports. And in the latest poll from Monmouth University, 71% of Americans want Republicans in Congress to “find ways to work together with Biden” rather than focus on keeping him in check.
There is also the not insignificant fact that Biden won the November election by more than 7 million votes, flipping Georgia and Arizona — former strongholds of Sunbelt Republicanism — in the process. The Democratic Senate majority represents 40 million more Americans than the Republican minority, even though the chamber is split 50-50 between the two parties.
The question of this COVID relief package — and really, the next two years — is not whether Biden and the Democratic Party will appeal to Republicans in Congress. The question is whether Republicans will reconcile themselves to a reality in which the president has a mandate to act. The public wants bipartisanship and consensus. Will congressional Republicans give it to them?
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.