As Joe Biden presses his case for Republicans to set partisanship aside and support his Covid-19 relief bill in Congress this week, the President reminded Americans of his own history working across the aisle with his visit Saturday evening to his ailing friend Bob Dole.
The friendship between Biden and Dole, the former Senate Republican leader who recently revealed that he has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, was forged over the many years that the two men served together in the Senate. Biden often speaks with nostalgia about his working relationships with GOP leaders during that less polarizing time when negotiation was the rule rather than the exception.
The new President’s desire to create more consensus in Washington will clearly be on his mind as he tries to steer his $1.9 trillion stimulus package through the US House this week and prepares for the legislation’s more difficult path through the US Senate. The Senate will also take up more of his nominees this week as he looks to fill out his Cabinet. But not all of them have full Democratic support. He’ll need GOP votes, for example, to get Office of Management and Budget director nominee Neera Tanden confirmed.
But on the pandemic, at least, he is leaning in with the limited political capital he has in a narrowly divided Congress, while taking his case for the package directly to the American people as he tries to overcome Republican opposition — something he’ll continue to do this week, a White House official said Sunday. With the House set to vote this week, the President and senior members of his team will also continue their engagement with members of Congress on the package as well as state and local leaders and other stakeholders, the official said.
In this first glimpse of Biden’s presidential salesmanship, he has not been shy about calling out Republicans who are wary of supporting his American Rescue Plan, despite its popularity — urging them to offer their ideas for potential compromise. On Friday, at a Pfizer plant in Michigan manufacturing vaccines, he made an impassioned case for the bill while pushing back on Republican critics who have said it is too big and too expensive.
“Let me ask them: What would they have me cut? What would they have me leave out?” Biden asked. “Should we not invest $20 billion to vaccinate the nation? Should we not invest $290 (billion) to extend unemployment insurance for the 11 million Americans who are unemployed so they can get by while they get back to work? Should we not invest $50 billion to help small businesses stay open, when tens of thousands have had to close permanently? … Should we not invest $130 (billion) to help schools across the nation open safely?”
In its current form, the House bill released Friday, which closely mirrors Biden’s proposal, would provide direct payments of up to $1,400 per person for Americans making up to $75,000 annually, while extending key pandemic unemployment programs through August and the 15% increase in food stamp benefits through September. The legislation also includes assistance for struggling homeowners and those at risk of homelessness, as well as substantial tax credits for families and low-income workers.
With many parents focused on how to get their children back to in-person classes, Biden and his aides have highlighted the nearly $130 billion that the plan would provide to K-12 schools to help them pay for safety modifications that the administration hopes will allow more schools to reopen.
One of the most controversial provisions is the phased increase of the $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025. Moderate Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have already signaled their opposition to that provision — and with the Senate divided 50-50, Biden cannot afford to lose a single member in his caucus. The Senate parliamentarian also must review whether the minimum wage hike would have a direct impact on the federal budget — allowing it to be considered as part of the process known as reconciliation that could enable Democrats to pass the legislation on a party-line vote.
Biden has acknowledged that he believes the minimum wage increase is unlikely to survive as part of the package. But Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and is also chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has forcefully advocated for the provision, noting that the increase would be gradual, and that the federal government would provide tax credits to small businesses to help cushion the impact.
Sanders said in an interview with CNN Saturday that he was confident that the Senate parliamentarian would ultimately side with the argument that he and other progressives have made that “raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is not ‘incidental’ to the federal budget and is permissible under the rules of reconciliation.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has argued that the current economic conditions and makeup of the Senate have created progressives’ best opportunity to achieve their long-held goal of increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
“I know there are questions about whether or not the Senate can get it through,” Jayapal told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday. “But I can tell you, Dana, this $15 minimum wage increase would mean 30 million Americans would get a raise. A million Americans would come out of poverty, and 30% of those minimum wage workers are Black; 25% are Latinx.”
When asked whether she would support the Covid-19 relief package without the minimum wage increase, Jayapal simply said she believed the measure will be included.
“I don’t think we’re going to have to make that decision, and I think we’re going to have to fight hard for it,” she said.
In a preview of the arguments Republicans will make this week, GOP leaders in the House have already begun urging their members to vote against the bill, calling it the “Payoff to Progressives Act.” In an email to members Friday obtained by CNN, the office of House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, argued that Democrats have rushed the legislation to the floor — and said it will bail out blue states while “paying people not to work.”
On Sunday, Scalise highlighted the cost of the package when asked to explain the lack of Republican support for the bill. During an interview with ABC’s “This Week,” Scalise said Republicans would balk at the fact that “there’s over a trillion dollars of money unspent from previous relief bills that were bipartisan.”
“The money is still sitting in a bank account and we’re going to pass 1.9 trillion of additional spending to bail out failed states, to raise the minimum wage?” Scalise said on ABC. “What’s that have to do with Covid? It should be focused on helping families and small business that are struggling, not bankrupting our children.”
Biden is looking to overcome those Republican objections by continuing to appeal directly to the American people this week. And Republicans’ objections over the next week carry some risk, given the popularity of the legislation.
A Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month showed that nearly 7 in 10 Americans supported the $1.9 trillion package and only 24% opposed it. The support was overwhelming among Democrats, but also considerable among independents (who said they favored the bill 68% to 25%). Republicans opposed the package in the survey 47% to 37%.
Speaking in Michigan on Friday, Biden said he was open to ideas about how to “make the package better and make it cheaper.”
“My hope is that the Republicans in Congress listen to their constituents,” he said. Americans, he added, “want us to act, and act big and quickly and support the plan.”
This story has been updated with additional details.