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Biden’s push for bipartisanship faces early test

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President Joe Biden’s pledge to restore a tradition of bipartisan deal-making in Washington is facing an early test as a divided Congress weighs his ambitious pandemic relief plan.

The $1.9 trillion “rescue” package Biden rolled out last week — a big-ticket bid to revive a coronavirus-ravaged economy — is getting the cold shoulder from Republicans. And some Democrats, anxious to act quickly, are beginning to question whether there is any point in trying to win their support.

For Biden, who as a candidate branded himself the Democrat best positioned to break Capitol Hill gridlock, the story of his presidency could well be written over the coming weeks, as the work of crafting the bill and wrangling votes for it begins in earnest. But even in the face of Republican opposition and Democratic anxiety, Biden is betting on himself and a team of seasoned negotiators to deliver not only a massive aid package, but also a victory that would vindicate one of the core premises of his political life — that there is always room and reason to negotiate with partisan foes.

The legislation Biden described will, under the Senate’s current rules, require at least 10 Republican votes and a unified Democratic caucus to pass. If that fails, the White House and Senate Democrats are poised to pivot to a process called budget reconciliation, which would allow for a pared-down package to pass with a simple majority. To get the full package without GOP support, Senate Democrats would likely have to go “nuclear” and change or end the legislative filibuster, a move that former President Barack Obama endorsed last year.

Biden’s stance is less clear. He has supported retaining the filibuster in the past but hedged in comments last summer, saying his posture could change depending on “how obstreperous (Republicans) become.” Asked on Friday where Biden currently stands, White House press secretary Jen Psaki would say only that his “position has not changed.”

Moving to the budget reconciliation or getting rid of the filibuster would put a dent in Biden’s claim of being a master negotiator. But it might be the only way, Democrats argue, to deliver relief to Americans desperate for it.

“Biden has to give McConnell some chance to see if he’s going to play ball, but I think there’s a time limit with that. I don’t think that Biden has the luxury of waiting forever. I think three months, four months at the most,” said former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who worked closely with both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Biden during his time in the Senate. “There’s going to come a time that the filibuster is going to have to go. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when it’s going to go.”

Reid acknowledged that getting rid of the filibuster — or any moves to go around Republicans — would undercut Biden’s political brand. But the Nevada Democrat argued that his former colleague will likely have to choose between being an icon of bipartisanship and a President with a lengthy list of accomplishments.

“You can’t do both. … His legacy will be judged on what he gets done. If (Republicans) are going to stop him from getting anything done, his legacy will not be a good one,” Reid said, before he put a finer point on it: “Joe Biden will be recognized for what he’s accomplished. And won’t be recognized for ‘I got along with everybody. We didn’t get everything done, but I was sure nice to everybody.’ “

During her first briefing on Wednesday night, Psaki said Biden “will be quite involved” in the negotiating process and pointed to his 36 years in the Senate as evidence that his engagement could yield results. But she also suggested that Biden would not hesitate to cut bait when the time came.

“His clear preference is to move forward with a bipartisan bill. There’s no question about it,” Psaki said. “But we are also not going to take any tools off the table for how the House and Senate can get this urgent package done.”

One of Biden’s top advisers, National Economic Council director Brian Deese, confirmed on Friday afternoon that he will speak to a bipartisan group of senators Sunday.

“In terms of the message, it’s pretty clear,” Deese told reporters. “We’re at a precarious moment for the virus and the economy. Without decisive action, we risk falling into a very serious economic hole, even more serious than the crisis we find ourselves in.”

He stopped to make note that former Trump economic adviser Kevin Hassett has come out in support of the package.

Still, some Democrats are already beginning to urge Biden not to get hung up on hopes of winning a bipartisan, filibuster-proof majority. Their ranks include veterans of the Obama administration’s protracted and ultimately fruitless quest to win over Republican support for the Affordable Care Act more than a decade ago.

Kathleen Sebelius, a former Kansas governor who was Obama’s first Health and Human Services secretary, said she learned the hard way that waiting too long for Republican support — something that former Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who was the Senate Finance chairman during the process, promised but failed to deliver — could do real political damage.

“There is not a lot of time to waste,” Sebelius said of Biden’s relief push. “He is wise to put it forward early, to say, ‘I want bipartisan support,’ and then to do anything he can to get whatever he can passed as quickly as possible, because people are really hurting.”

The long process of passing Obamacare allowed Republicans to marshal opposition and positioned them to use the law — which was still mostly an abstraction after its passage in early 2010 — as a cudgel during that year’s midterm elections, when Democrats got “shellacked,” as Obama then put it. A similar delay, Sebelius added, threatened to hamstring Democratic efforts to keep, or potentially expand, their congressional majorities in the 2022 election.

“People have to feel the impact of what happens quickly. They have to know their lives are better,” said Sebelius. “Things that are very tangible have to happen visibly and quickly.”

Democrats in the Senate are keeping a close eye on their GOP counterparts and, according to a senior aide to a member of the caucus, remain “overwhelmingly upbeat” about the White House’s proposal and the messaging around it.

“There’s no heartburn over Biden’s initial kind of play to make it bipartisan, to reach across the aisle,” the aide said, adding that there is also “no illusion” among the Democrats over the prospect of Republicans coming on board — a reality that was hammered home by moderate Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins’ recent comments questioning the need for more spending.

The plan, the aide said, was simple: “We tout (the bill), we celebrate it, we say we want to reach across the aisle — and at the same time, we need to be quietly moving to pursue some of this policy agenda via reconciliation.”

Some Democrats, especially in the party’s progressive ranks, have already questioned the strategy or are signaling their desire for a quick pivot to action — with or without GOP backing.

“I believe that President-elect Biden has a very optimistic view of the Republican Party. He has made past statements (saying) once Trump is gone, they will see the error of their ways,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told reporters after a virtual town hall last week. “I applaud his optimism, but disagree with his assessment.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the incoming Budget Committee chairman, has been supportive of Biden’s approach so far, but he wrote in a CNN op-ed on the eve of the inauguration that Democrats should be prepared to go it alone, using reconciliation.

“The danger we face would not be in going too big or spending too much but in going too small and leaving the needs of the American people behind,” the Vermont independent wrote. “If Republicans would like to work with us, we should welcome them. But their support is not necessary.”

The tension between the more aggressive approach favored by Sanders and fellow progressives, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, was one of the core conflicts of the 2020 Democratic primary contest. Biden ultimately emerged, in part, because a wider swath of Democratic voters embraced his conciliatory pitch.

Biden also benefited, in some quarters, from the view that almost anything he supported, because of his long record of taking moderate positions in the Senate and as vice president, was definitionally the moderate approach — even when he stakes out ground to the left of where the Obama administration landed.

That brand will likely help the newly inaugurated President as he attempts to convince the public that pursuing his biggest campaign promise — uniting a severely divided country — and passing a massive Covid relief bill are not in conflict.

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