President Biden arrives with negotiator-in-chief credentials

Coronavirus relief at top of agenda in closely divided Congress

President Joe Biden is no stranger to tough negotiations on Capitol Hill.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
President Joe Biden is no stranger to tough negotiations on Capitol Hill. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 20, 2021 at 1:56pm

President Joe Biden used his inaugural address Wednesday to repeat a key tenet of his campaign: a vow to restore bipartisanship in Washington. The first test of whether he can deliver starts immediately as the new administration attempts to negotiate another coronavirus relief package in the coming weeks. 

Last week, Biden unveiled a proposal for $1.9 trillion in aid that will serve as the starting point for the next round of negotiations. House and Senate Democrats in control of Congress are eager to pass Biden’s plan, and they don’t plan to let Republicans stand in their way.

But lawmakers who’ve worked closely with Biden during his time as vice president and as a senator say he will undoubtedly try to strike a deal with Republicans before turning to more partisan options for passing his aid package, like the budget reconciliation process or eliminating the legislative filibuster. 

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“His first impulse, and I’ve seen this many times with Joe, will be to try to get bipartisan agreement,” former Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, told CQ Roll Call. “But he is smart and he knows his options, and he will have reconciliation in his back pocket. And anybody negotiating will understand he has reconciliation in his back pocket. And that gives him increased leverage.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in an interview that he expects Biden — “a person who understands that legislation is the art of compromise” — to try to forge a bipartisan deal. But if that doesn’t work, Biden shouldn’t bother with reconciliation, the Nevada Democrat said — his party should skip right to the nuclear option. 

“I think there’s going to come a time, if the impasse is not broken, that we’re going to have to get rid of the filibuster,” Reid said. “I would think two or three months at the most.”

Bipartisan deals, Biden’s preferred route to passing legislation, will require support from at least 10 Republicans in the Senate, even if Democrats don’t have any defections on their side, because of the chamber’s 60-vote threshold for bills to advance.

Biden will decide for himself how long to try for a bipartisan deal, Reid said, but he predicts that the president will figure out “pretty quickly” whether Republicans will cooperate.

None of the options available to Biden, including eliminating the legislative filibuster, will be easy. In the House, Democrats have 221 seats, the slimmest majority in decades. In the 50-50 Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris’ ability to break ties is the only reason Democrats hold the majority. 

No GOP outreach yet

Biden helped negotiate bipartisan deals as vice president during the Obama administration, but not all of his efforts resulted in the kind of broad GOP support that he’ll need now as president. 

Take the 2009 stimulus package that Congress passed shortly after President Barack Obama and Biden were sworn in for their first term.

Obama had Biden use his Senate connections to recruit Republican support, which was needed because Democrats had only 58 votes on their side and the ailing Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who died later that year, was at times absent. Ultimately, only three Senate Republicans — Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — voted for the package, although it was just the margin needed.

Biden had started his outreach on the 2009 stimulus during the transition, which is something he hasn’t done this time. Several GOP senators, including Collins, told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday that they haven’t heard from Biden or his team since he released his coronavirus relief plan last week.

“I have not, which surprises me,” Collins said. She said it “seems premature” to declare that another $1.9 trillion is needed before the $900 billion enacted last month is allocated, but she agrees additional vaccination funding will be required “quickly.”

Although Biden has yet to reach out to Senate Republicans, he could still turn his plan into a bipartisan one if he’s willing to negotiate as he’s done in the past, Sen. John Cornyn said. 

“Obviously, he’s a creature of the Senate before he got to the White House. And he’s got a lot of important relationships that I think will serve him well,” the Texas Republican said. “The real question I have is how much will the left and the more radical members of his party allow him to do bipartisan things? To me, that’s yet to be determined.”

Collins said she’ll also be looking to see how Biden responds to progressives’ demands. 

“I have found him to be a person of his word, to be interested in finding common ground and, back then, to be a moderate,” she said. “What I’m concerned about is when I see some of his appointees and the pressure he seems to be under from the far left, that he will allow himself to be pulled to the left. I hope he does not do that.”

Progressive pressure

Outside groups like Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement and New Deal Strategies are arguing that Biden shouldn’t water down his proposals in a hunt for Republican support. In a memo Monday, the groups suggested it’s inevitable that Republicans will try to block Biden’s agenda and the president should not use reconciliation because of the limitations on what policies can be advanced under budget rules. 

“It would be far healthier, cleaner, and easier to explain politically to simply reform or get rid of the filibuster immediately, and proceed to pass Biden’s agenda through regular order,” the groups said, noting the president “has the credibility and the political capital to bring along the small number of wavering senators.”

As a “creature of the Senate,” as Cornyn put it, Biden has been hesitant in the past to get rid of the legislative filibuster. But even longtime colleagues like Reid say that “it’s a matter of when, not if” the Senate goes nuclear.

If that occurs, Reid will be the one who first led the Senate down the nuclear path. Under his leadership in 2013, the Senate ended the filibuster for executive branch and most judicial nominations. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell later removed the filibuster on Supreme Court picks in 2017, enabling President Donald Trump to secure three conservative picks for lifetime seats on the nation’s highest court.

Against that backdrop, pressure is immense to remove the legislative filibuster to enact priorities ranging from a higher minimum wage to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Biden risks losing progressive support if Republicans successfully water down his proposals. When Congress was struggling at the end of 2012 to avoid a “fiscal cliff” of automatic spending cuts and tax increases, Biden was able to close a deal with McConnell. The bipartisan agreement won plenty of Republican support, but it frustrated a lot of Democrats.

Reid has said previously he’d have preferred to “go over the cliff” to allow Democrats to negotiate from a stronger position. “The Senate works; you get something done or not done and move on to something else,” Reid told CQ Roll Call this week. “It was something that was a disappointment to a number of people. But from that period, it was history.”

Conrad, for his part, said Biden secured “as good a deal that could be gotten.”

‘Depends on the other side’

Not all of Biden’s efforts at negotiating with Republicans were successful. For example, in 2011 he led a bipartisan group that attempted to negotiate a deficit reduction deal in exchange for raising the statutory debt limit. But Biden couldn’t get GOP leaders on board for the tax increases necessary to sell a deal to his own party if they were going to be forced to swallow cuts to entitlement programs.

“Joe tried hard. He did as well as he could,” former Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who was part of the group, said in an interview. “But much of this depends on the other side.” 

Democrats point to the 2009 health care fight as an example of how Republicans can lead them on to no good end. The Obama-Biden White House, Baucus, Reid and others tried for months to get Republican support. In the end, only Democrats voted for the legislation when the final version passed in 2010.

“Maybe I was a little naive because I pushed as much as anyone for it to be bipartisan,” Baucus said, arguing he felt the health care overhaul was more likely to be short-lived if it was partisan. “McConnell just saw a huge political opportunity to drive a wedge.”

Baucus said there’s a danger that McConnell will deploy a similar opposition strategy to Biden’s agenda heading into the 2022 midterms. 

“Mitch is going to be very interested in regaining the majority of the Senate,” he said. “He might conclude that he’s likely to get more Republicans elected in 2022 by working with Biden. Or it could be the opposite. I just don’t know.”

Democrats also need to tread carefully for political reasons, Baucus warned. 

“When the same party is in power, it tends to overreach. It tends to go too far,” he said. “And that party gets hurt in the next congressional elections.”