Thursday, February 4, 2021

What cows' legs have to do with economic stimulus -- Feb. 4, 2021 column


President Joe Biden wants Republican support for his economic stimulus package, but the clock’s ticking.

“We need to act. We need to act fast,” Biden said Wednesday in a private conference call with House Democrats, according to news reports.

To win Republican votes, the president is willing to negotiate on some parts of his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan package, but he doesn’t want to talk endlessly.

He wants Congress to send him a bill to sign by March 14, when extended unemployment benefits expire for millions of Americans.

Biden met Monday with 10 Republican senators whose $618 billion counterproposal is one third the size of Biden’s plan. Among GOP provisions -- $1,000 checks to individuals, instead of Biden’s $1,400 checks, and no $15 minimum wage.

Biden wants to “go big,” as do House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and even West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican.

“We need to quit counting the egg-sucking legs on the cows and count the cows and just move,” Justice said in TV interviews Wednesday. In other words, pass something and not worry about the cost.

Biden’s choice: Make good on his promise of bipartisanship by watering down his plan to appease Republicans or deliver on the promise of meaningful help to millions hurt by the pandemic.

Biden believes in compromise, but compromise requires both sides act in good faith. As usual, each side is accusing the other of playing a crass political game.

But the wide gap between the packages raises the question whether Republicans seriously want bipartisanship – or just talking points for the next campaign.

We’ve been here before. When President Barack Obama took office in 2009 with Biden as his vice president, the country was sliding into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Obama wanted Republican support for his economic stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“There was a pervasive nostalgia in Washington, both before I was elected and during my presidency, for a bygone era of bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill,” Obama writes in his memoir, “A Promised Land.”

To court Republicans, he shrank the stimulus package – and, many economists believe, made it much less effective, slowing the recovery.

Obama hoped he might “catch GOP leaders by surprise and ease their suspicions, helping to build working relationships that could carry over to other issues. And if, as was more likely, the gambit didn’t work and Republicans rejected my overtures, then at least voters would know who was to blame for Washington’s dysfunction,” he writes.

None of that happened. His $787 billion recovery act passed – without a single Republican vote. Republicans then obstructed his subsequent initiatives at every turn. Congressional Democrats later pushed through the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare -- again with zero Republican votes.

But, voters didn’t blame Republicans for dysfunctional government. To the contrary, in the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans, fueled by the Tea Partiers, captured dozens of seats and control of the House and gained seats in the Senate.

Biden and congressional Democrats know what they’re up against. So, they again are pressing forward with a plan to pass the economic stimulus with only Democratic support by using a budgetary tool known as reconciliation.

If no Republicans join, Democrats could pass the bill with 51 votes in the Senate, bypassing the usual 60 vote requirement. The Senate is split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.

Republicans are crying foul, of course, but they used reconciliation to pass the 2017 tax cuts without any Democratic support.

In his memoir, Obama recounts a story Biden shared about his run-in as a senator with Mitch McConnell. After the Republican leader blocked a bill Biden was sponsoring, Biden tried to explain its merits. McConnell held up his hand like a traffic cop and said: “You must be under the mistaken impression that I care.”

Biden is not naïve. He knows who and what he’s up against. He believes he can round up a few Republican votes and call the package bipartisan. But Republicans may just keep counting the legs on the cows.

© 2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



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