President Joe Biden suggested Monday he was prepared to give Republicans a "couple weeks" to reach a bipartisan deal on a coronavirus aid package before triggering the budget reconciliation process to skirt GOP opposition.
Facing a key governance test in his fledgling presidency, Biden made clear he hoped to rally bipartisan support for his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan. But he also held out the prospect of resorting to a more partisan approach: a reconciliation tool that avoids the risk of a Senate filibuster.
“The decision to use reconciliation will depend upon how these negotiations go,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “I don't expect we'll know whether we have an agreement — and to what extent the entire package will be able to pass or not pass — until we get right down to the very end of this process, which will be probably in a couple weeks.”
The president’s comments came one day after his National Economic Council director, Brian Deese, held a conference call with a centrist group of 16 senators from both parties to gauge support for a bipartisan deal. Republicans have expressed unease with the size of Biden’s package and some of its provisions, such as a push to more than double the federal minimum wage.
The White House insisted it was willing to negotiate with Republicans in coming weeks. “We don't expect the final bill to look exactly the same as the first bill he proposed,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at her daily briefing.
But Biden also made clear his reluctance to chop up his plan into bite-sized pieces, each of which would have to be taken up separately. “Time is of the essence and I must tell you I'm reluctant to cherry pick and take out one or two items here and then have to go through it again because they all go sort of hand in glove,” he said.
Republicans, meanwhile, made clear their opposition to the current plan and warned it would need a rewrite to win their support.
"The administration has a lot of work to do if they want to end up with a bipartisan package,” said Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., who participated in Sunday’s conference call. “What they presented to us was not targeted and I think Republicans and Democrats alike sent that message to the administration.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., another participant in the call, stopped short of saying she would support a bill with a $1.9 trillion price tag. "I support a big package,” she told reporters Monday. “I'm still analyzing all the different pieces of it. I'm sure there'll be parts of it I like better than others, like most people."
Democrats have already begun laying the groundwork for the reconciliation process, which first would require Congress to adopt a budget resolution, a fiscal blueprint that would contain reconciliation instructions. Key Democrats have said they may take up a budget resolution in a matter of days or weeks.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the incoming Senate Budget chairman, said he wanted to adopt a budget resolution “yesterday” and was not willing to drop proposals like a minimum wage increase to win GOP support.
“I’ve not heard of one Republican” supporting Biden’s plan, Sanders said. “What we’re not going to do is negotiate with ourselves,” he said of the Democratic caucus.
Democrats don't have much time to act with the Senate impeachment trial starting on Feb. 9 likely to dominate that chamber's attention. The majority could use the time before then to move a fiscal 2021 budget resolution directly to the floor, which the 1974 budget law allows since the Senate Budget panel didn't act by April 1, 2020.
Democrats aren't tipping their hand yet, though in an appearance Monday night on MSNBC, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer made clear his patience for bipartisan talks has limits.
"It has to be big and bold and strong," Schumer said of the emerging aid package. Recalling the many months of effort to try to win bipartisan support in 2009 for President Barack Obama's health care law, Schumer said: "We will not make that mistake again."
Bipartisan reconciliation bill?
Even while dangling the prospect of reconciliation, the White House said such a strategy would not preclude bipartisan cooperation. No matter which procedure is used, “that does not mean, regardless of how the bill is passed, that Democrats and Republicans cannot both vote for it,” Psaki said.
But history shows that reconciliation rarely leads to bipartisan votes.
In the last two decades, reconciliation has only been used when one party controls both chambers. There were a few instances of bipartisan backing for reconciliation bills, however.
In 2007, a Democratic-led Congress passed an education reconciliation law with strong GOP backing because it enjoyed the support of the George W. Bush's administration. That measure cut payments to private student lenders and put the savings into more money for Pell Grants for low-income college students, among other things.
The 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts also passed with bipartisan support under GOP control of Congress. But by the time the 2003 tax bill came around and budget surpluses had evaporated, Democratic support was considerably thinner. Two conservative Democrats offset the loss of three GOP senators on the final 2003 vote, with Republican Vice President Dick Cheney breaking the tie.
And on a 2006 vote to extend parts of the Bush tax cuts via reconciliation, Republicans wooed three Senate Democrats and 15 House Democrats on final passage. But Republicans controlled more than enough Senate seats on their own to pass the measure, even with the defections of three of their own members on the final vote.
'A big question'
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a key swing vote whose support would likely be needed in any bipartisan deal, said the size of Biden’s plan “is a big question” and it contained extraneous provisions unrelated to the pandemic.
“It should not be used as a vehicle for a wish list that certain Democrats have,” Collins told reporters, singling out Biden’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, up from the current $7.25 .
“Now, that's not to say that I don't think there should be an increase in the minimum wage," Collins said. "There should be, but that should be considered separately so we can debate, what the right amount is. It has nothing to do with COVID.”
Passing Biden’s package through reconciliation would avoid a Senate GOP filibuster threat but comes with its own set of risks. The Senate’s so-called Byrd rule restricts the use of reconciliation to matters that affect federal spending and taxes and bars its use for measures whose budgetary impact is “merely incidental” to any policy change.
That rule could put in jeopardy provisions such as the proposed minimum wage increase, although whether it does remains an open question. “To be very candid with you, I think that’s a stretch,” House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth said of an effort to pass a minimum wage boost through reconciliation.
But the Kentucky Democrat told CNN on Monday his party planned to include a minimum wage increase in a reconciliation bill anyway and would let the Senate’s parliamentarian decide on any rules violation.
Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.