In another time, Joe Biden might have been the emissary explaining to a president what is doable — and what is not — on Capitol Hill.
He’s done it before, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, telling Ronald Reagan that the nomination of Robert Bork was going to be a big problem. And as vice president, he shepherded President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package to get a handful of GOP votes.
After 36 years in the Senate, the dynamic of legislating is second nature to Biden. That was obvious after his two-hour session with moderate Republicans the other day. And on Wednesday, Biden will dial into House Democrats’ weekly caucus meeting before he and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with Democratic senators in the Oval Office. He is a man who loves being in the room.
But now, it’s his room. It’s his huge $1.9 trillion relief package. And it’s his choice: How much to deal with moderate Republicans who support a package that would lower benefits substantially and anger progressive Democrats? Or, to look at it another way, how much to stick with much of his original plan and risk a bloody partisan brawl for the next few years?
Only this time the new President — and ex-elder of the Senate — is playing a different game. And it’s not an inside one, which is very un-Biden. In fact, think Reagan.
Look back to 1981, when the new President took his case for his sweeping tax cuts to the American people, using public opinion to help sway Congress — or at least convince the public he was right. He went on TV, made his case and eventually passed a bill that also included some of the Democrats’ proposals. But Reagan got the credit.
“Ronald Reagan always had a lot of bipartisan support,” says a Biden adviser. “It just wasn’t in the Congress.”
It may turn out to be too cute, but there’s clearly an evolving definition of unity in the Biden White House. Same for bipartisan. In Bidenworld, bipartisan unity isn’t just a Capitol Hill exercise. It’s about convincing the public that Biden is right. Unifying the country, outside of Washington, a la Reagan.
But when Reagan made his case to the country, it wasn’t a tactic. He went all in, spoke with the American people about his bill, invested his personal prestige and told voters to call members of Congress. Maybe Biden needs to do the same? An Oval Office address, laying it on the line, telling people why he can’t compromise with a bill half the size he wants. We’ve heard him say this is urgent; he might want to tell people exactly what is on the line here.
To hear the Biden people tell it, the public is already alongside them. They talk about how Covid relief has more than 70% support with the public. And one top adviser tells me that it wouldn’t be easy for many of the moderate Republicans to vote against sending stimulus checks to people or extending unemployment benefits in the middle of a pandemic. So, sure, Biden’s proposal for a $15 minimum wage may not survive. And White House aides seem receptive to the targeting of stimulus checks.
But in the end, they believe they need to win this first big one — and winning means getting most of what they want. “Why are we going to let 50 people in DC define what bipartisanship is?” says this adviser. “Washington DC’s definition of bipartisanship is getting one member to cross the aisle.”
There’s also a bit of déjà vu here. In 2009, then-Vice President Biden spent his early days in office vote hunting for three Republicans who bucked their party’s near-total rejection of Obama’s rescue package amid what was then the worst recession since the Great Depression. Inside the Biden White House, the argument is that this crisis is much worse, and more urgent, with the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic. And they say no one feels that urgency more than the new President.
It’s not that Biden, who actually loves negotiating, will not cut any deal. He probably will, but around the edges. At the end of the day, his advisers say, the public will not judge success by whether he uses an arcane budget process to pass his stimulus plan with 51 votes or whether he can get to 60. After all, Donald Trump used that budget process — called reconciliation — to pass his tax cuts. The public, they argue, will judge Biden by one standard: success.
Biden has decided to go big, and there’s no going back. Think his predecessor circa 1981. “This is not the time for political fun and games,” Reagan said on a TV appearance from the Oval Office. “This is the time for a new beginning.”
Or so Biden hopes.