Democrats are plowing forward with plans to pass a massive Covid-19 relief package. And if Republicans don’t join them, they won’t forget it.
Already, there’s talk about midterm attack ads portraying Republicans as willing to slash taxes for the wealthy but too stingy to cut checks for people struggling during the deadly pandemic. And President Joe Biden’s aides and allies are vowing not to make the same mistakes as previous administrations going into the midterms elections. They are pulling together plans to ensure Americans know about every dollar delivered and job kept because of the bill they’re crafting. And there is confidence that the Covid-19 relief package will ultimately emerge not as a liability for Democrats, but as an election year battering ram.
“This is one of those rare instances — maybe not exceedingly rare, but it doesn’t happen often — where the best policy perfectly aligns with the politics,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a Biden ally. “If I’m a candidate in 2022 running for the House or Senate, I think I’d want to be able to say we’ve had a robust Covid-19 relief bill, we raised the minimum wage, we made progress on health care, we’ve started to make progress on combating climate change and a whole range of issues candidates would want to run on.”
Over the first weeks of the new administration, White House officials stressed that they are singularly focused on moving the “rescue” legislation and unprecedented response to the pandemic through Congress.
Biden and advisers insist they would prefer Republican cooperation on the $1.9 trillion legislation, which calls for direct checks, money for school reopenings and funds for a robust vaccine effort. But their eyes have also started to drift toward what comes after the package becomes law: a major political undertaking to cement the bill’s popularity among voters.
The effort will include a giant outreach effort touting the package’s benefits as well as pledges from the Democratic House and Senate campaign arms to promote it in their own messaging. The Democratic National Committee, working with state parties across battlegrounds, is mobilizing to highlight Biden’s legislation as helping to save lives and create jobs, which officials expect to ramp up in the coming months.
White House officials are sorely aware of past administrations’ track records in their first midterms and view the Covid relief measure as foundational in a two-year battle that will determine the fate of Democrats’ slim majorities, as well as the other elements of Biden’s ambitious agenda on Capitol Hill.
A raft of public polls has bolstered the belief inside the White House that they have a mandate to act and that those who oppose the package will struggle to justify their stances come November 2022.
“It’s going to be very difficult for Republican lawmakers to look their constituents in the eyes and try to explain why they voted against giving them $1,400 checks, why they voted against reopening schools, and why they voted against speeding up vaccinations,” a White House official told POLITICO. “We’re going to keep making the case about why this package matters and Republicans on the Hill are going to have to decide whether or not they’re going to listen to their voters.”
A close White House ally went further, accusing Republicans of acting hypocritically while noting that under former President Donald Trump, the GOP expressed few concerns about spending and the federal deficit when they passed tax cuts and then approved trillions of dollars in Covid relief over the last year.
“Members who stand for killing jobs in the worst downturn since the Great Depression will be at great risk of losing their own,” the person added.
And yet, there’s precedent that could make the Biden team’s upbeat assessment of their party’s political prospects misplaced. Back in 2009, Obama administration officials thought that their stimulus package would be met with gratitude among voters, even dubbing the following months “recovery summer.” The economic bounceback ended up being far slower than anticipated. And celebration over the stimulus was soon replaced by trepidation and difficulty in passing Obamacare. Two years in politics, they discovered, is several lifetimes.
Biden’s team is well aware of the long road ahead and of the pitfalls that come when passing a major bill but inadequately selling it.
And so, they’re proceeding apace with a public pressure campaign. Fourteen senior Biden administration officials have already sat for more than 100 national TV, radio and podcast interviews on the “rescue” plan alone, aides said, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen appearing on several Sunday shows, communications director Kate Bedingfield on “The View,” and chief of staff Ron Klain rotating between evening TV networks. White House aides and outside allies have met with dozens of interest groups and community organizations while having some early success in convincing conservative governors, local officials and business groups to endorse the package — even if congressional Republicans are holding off.
“We’re meeting with and talking to a lot of groups that are traditionally Republican,” said Cedric Richmond, a Biden senior adviser and former Louisiana congressman who is holding meetings with advocacy groups while continuing talks with Hill colleagues.
“Our goal is to talk to everybody, whether it’s rural America, farms, agriculture, we’re not assuming anything. We’re not letting Republicans or anyone else be the only voice in any particular area,” Richmond added.
Central to the strategy, though, is to not allow the momentum for the package to let up. On Friday, Democrats took the procedural steps needed to bypass the filibuster and pass major policies with a simple majority, a tactic they ultimately used to enact the sweeping health care law under former President Barack Obama after months of waiting for GOP compromise that never materialized.
The White House also quickly dismissed a Senate Republican counterproposal, which came in at one-third the size of Biden’s, as not a serious negotiating effort.
In interviews on the politics of the plan, Democrats repeatedly returned to Obama’s health care law and his earlier stimulus fight as crucial lessons in how policy battles can impact the midterms. Democrats have come to view the Obama stimulus from 2009 as too small to meet the moment, and not simplistic enough to sell to the public. Direct checks, like those included in Biden’s Covid relief bill, won’t suffer the same fate, they believe — pointing to how the issue helped Democrats notch pivotal wins in the Georgia Senate runoffs.
“This is a national emergency,” said Zac Petkanas, who recently founded the group, Invest in America, to help Biden push through the package. “There is enormous political peril for anyone seen as standing in the way of getting immediate relief to families. That’s a key lesson from the Georgia senate race.”
Democrats also believe they were too willing to allow Republicans to drag out negotiations over Obamacare, which the GOP voted against en masse and turned into a political cudgel in the 2010 midterms.
“As much as it was difficult for our party at that time to deal with or even defend the (Affordable Care Act) because it wasn’t really fully in effect, people also didn’t understand it,” Casey said. “We just didn’t spend enough time advocating on its behalf, or in favor of it. And I think that hurt us.”
The battle lines of the midterms are far from settled. Republican operatives charged with reversing Democratic majorities in the House and Senate are quick to note that Biden will still have to deliver on his vaccination goals and solve the Covid crisis. In recent weeks, they have tried to blame Democrats and allied teachers’ unions for standing in the way of reopening schools.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, pointed to a series of rapid-fire messaging votes they forced on Democrats to limit checks going to undocumented immigrants as potential cudgels they could use. The votes “provided a tremendous amount of fodder for GOP Senate campaigns,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesperson for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that supports Republican Senate candidates.
“Democrats arguing otherwise are whistling past the graveyard,” he said.
But those GOP attacks have been largely overshadowed by their own intraparty warfare after the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and Trump’s impeachment. Democrats are seizing on that unrest, painting Republicans — most prominently, far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — as extremist to further diminish their standing with suburban voters.
But longer term, both sides still anticipate that pocketbook issues and the pandemic will determine the larger election year narrative, pointing to how the 2009 stimulus and Obamacare shadowed the 2010 midterms while Trump’s tax cuts and unsuccessful efforts to repeal the health care law dominated the 2018 cycle for ascendant House Democrats.
Democrats will have six fewer Senate seats than Republicans to defend in 2022, with two of the 34 races occurring in the battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Biden finished ahead of Trump. Republicans also must defend seats in North Carolina, Florida and Iowa — all of which are states Trump won. In Ohio, the retirement of Sen. Rob Portman has opened up a seat that will be hotly contested by both parties. Democrats, meantime, will have to retain the seats of newly elected Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia, in what is expected to be a tough battle, as well as Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona.
Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, who is chairing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he’s been encouraged by Biden and the White House in the early weeks.
“He’s aggressively attacking some of the toughest problems that we’re facing as a country and I suspect that’s going to be his record over the next two years, as well,” Peters said. “I’m confident that he will be a positive for all of our candidates.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.
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