Biden, Democrats, plot 'aggressive' pandemic response — without the GOP

President-elect Joe Biden has spent months pledging to work with Republicans to advance his agenda. But Senate Democrats are now gearing up to pass Biden’s first major legislative package without them.

Key Senate offices are coalescing around a plan to pass another round of coronavirus legislation soon after Biden takes office using a process called reconciliation, which would allow them to move forward without any Republican support, five Senate aides tell POLITICO.

The package, which Biden said late last week will be “in the trillions of dollars,” is expected to provide direct relief to Americans through stimulus checks and give federal funding to help cash-strapped state, local and tribal governments distribute a vaccine and survive the most dire phase of the pandemic to date. But, freed of the need to compromise with Republicans, Democrats are also discussing including other priorities, including investing in infrastructure, moving to sustainable forms of energy and potentially even expanding Obamacare subsidies.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who will be a key figure for Biden in crafting reconciliation legislation as the new head of the Senate Budget Committee, pledged on Tuesday to use the powerful procedure to address the immediate health and economic crisis at hand.

“As we speak, my staff and I are working, we’re working with Biden’s people, we’re working with Democratic leadership, we’ll be working with my colleagues in the House to figure out how we can come up with the most aggressive reconciliation bill to address the suffering of the American working families today,” Sanders said in an interview.

Sanders acknowledged the twin problems Congress will have to address: both the immediate crisis of the pandemic and economic downturn, and what he called a broader “systemic crisis” of unemployment. And while lawmakers should think about using reconciliation to address both issues, he said “it’s still not clear to me whether the two ways end up being in one piece of legislation or two.”

Biden officials say getting relief to those who need it and fully funding a coordinated, national response to the pandemic are the president-elect’s top legislative priorities. Senate aides confirmed Biden has been in touch with Democratic leaders on the Hill about his general priorities. But his team’s work with Congress on a strategy is still in flux amid the pending impeachment trial and Biden’s speech later this week detailing his Covid plan and legislative agenda.

Passing the relief package through reconciliation would allow Democrats to bypass Republicans completely and pass the bill with only 50 votes — plus Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker — rather than 60. Some Senate aides emphasized it would allow the chamber to move more quickly, without having to spend time coaxing Republicans on board or giving them a chance to run out the clock.

Democrats are preemptively defending using reconciliation to pass legislation that is not strictly budget-focused. Several aides pointed to Republicans’ failed attempts in 2017 to use the process to get rid of the Affordable Care Act as having set a precedent they’re now entitled to follow.

“When and where we can, we will strive to make this important work bipartisan,” incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in a letter to Democratic senators on Tuesday, in which he called emergency Covid relief the Senate’s first order of legislative business. “However, if our Republican colleagues decide not to partner with us in our efforts to address these issues, we will not let that stop progress.”

But reconciliation also comes with bureaucratic hurdles and restrictions that some members fear could slow down the relief effort even further and allow any single Democratic dissenter to derail the legislation.

“We’ll have to have a budget resolution go through committee and then move to the floor, then do a vote-a-rama, then have the negotiation process of what goes into the bill under that budget framework, then make sure we have all 50 votes without losing a single one,” one Senate Democratic aide explained. “You hope that everything will go smoothly and quickly, but history has shown that when you have a zero-vote margin of error, that’s rarely the case.”

However, while aides expect some tension between progressive and moderate Democrats on the overall price tag of the bill, they said there is widespread agreement on the underlying policies.

Currently, items under discussion for the package include another round of stimulus checks, a $600 per week boost to unemployment insurance, billions for state and local governments that have seen tax revenues crater during the pandemic, funding to rescue the beleaguered rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine, aid for restaurants and other small businesses and, potentially, an expansion of Obamacare subsidies.

Democratic officials close to the transition say the stimulus checks — which are likely to total $1,400 and build on the $600 Congress passed in December — and money to help states with vaccine distribution and school reopenings are likely to take priority and gain the broadest support.

But passing a package through reconciliation would give Democrats room to be more ambitious, allowing them to approve more aid to state and local governments that most Republicans have opposed for months. It could also allow them to ignore Republicans’ demands for a liability shield for businesses that Democrats say would mean impunity for employers that endanger their workers’ health.

Some Biden allies expect Democrats to pack other priorities into the first package as well, given the procedural hurdles they will have to jump in order to pass it with a simple majority. Others warn that adding too many elements could sink its chances at making it to Biden’s desk.

But addressing some non-Covid priorities in the package could have the double-barreled benefit of also providing economic stimulus, many economists argue, on top of much-needed relief.

Cecilia Rouse, the president-elect’s nominee to lead the Council of Economic Advisers, on Friday called direct payments to families and funding to address the pandemic a “life raft,” merely keeping the economy afloat, while investments in areas like infrastructure would help the U.S. begin to return to pre-pandemic economic levels.

“The strategy here is to help families get to the other side, but also to make those investments that will actually encourage growth as our economy builds back,” Rouse said. Investments in infrastructure, she added, “put people to work. They are foundations of growth.”

Amplifying the need for major spending are growing signs that the U.S. economy has taken a turn for the worse, which could prompt lawmakers to agree on a larger package than they otherwise would have. Levels of childhood hunger have been steadily rising, with nearly one in six households with kids reporting not having enough to eat this month, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. More than 19 million Americans remain on unemployment benefits. And the labor market shed 140,000 jobs in December for the first month of declines since coronavirus shutdowns first took hold in the spring.

“It’s a trend, and the trend is getting worse,” said Austan Goolsbee, who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under the Obama administration and served as an informal adviser to the Biden campaign, referring to the December jobs data. “It’s clearly a warning siren there might very well be a double-dip recession knocking at the door.”

Biden, his team and Capitol Hill Democrats have all been careful not to put a specific dollar amount on the bill, a move one person close to the transition said was deliberate in order to avoid any early backlash. But the president-elect acknowledged late last week that “the price tag will be high.”

“The basic story is simple,” Biden said. “If we don’t act now, things are going to get much worse and harder to get out of the hole later.”

With pressure rising on Biden and congressional Democrats to swiftly deliver on their campaign trail promises, Senate aides say they’re largely pulling from bills that have already been drafted, vetted and — in some cases — passed by the House, including the HEROES Act and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Enhancement Act.

“We saw how long the December relief bill talks took and how, when you try to draft things quickly at the last minute, there are always errors and things that go awry,” one Senate aide said.

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