White House gambling Republican resistance to COVID relief package will prove costly for GOP

A new memo emphasizes that President Biden’s White House thinks his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is good politics as well as good policy, potentially hurting its GOP rivals while helping Americans suffering through the coronavirus pandemic.

“There seems to be a growing conventional wisdom that it is either politically smart — or, at worst, cost-free — for the GOP to adopt an obstructionist, partisan, base-politics posture,” Mike Donilon, a top adviser to the president, wrote to senior White House staff Tuesday in a memo published by Axios. “However, there is lots of evidence that the opposite is true: that it isn’t politically smart for the GOP to be going down this road. And rather than being cost-free, this approach has been quite damaging to them.”

Republicans appear set to repeat the tactics they employed the last time a Democrat held the White House, stonewalling Biden’s agenda whenever possible. This proved an effective strategy in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, when Republicans won up and down the ballot to take control of Congress, governors’ mansions and state legislatures. But Donilon has proposed that the stubborn resistance is hurting the GOP, citing a New York Times story that cited a drop in registered Republicans and favorability ratings for the Republican leaders in Congress being well below those of the president. Democrats have also cited last month’s special Senate elections in Georgia, where they flipped two Republican seats.

Joe Biden
President Biden meeting with labor union leaders in the Oval Office on Wednesday. (Pete Marovich/Pool/Getty Images)

“People need relief, and they need it now,” Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist, told Yahoo News. “Republicans are having a bit of an identity crisis, and while they try to figure out who they need to listen to, Democrats are fighting to get real relief. It’s really an easy thing to explain.”

“Georgia Democrats ran on a very simple message about results that Georgians could feel in their pockets,” Katz added. “It was the first time in the entire 2020 election that Democrats showed a clear message, and it worked. They need to learn from that.”

Biden has been firm on his messaging since taking office: He’d prefer bipartisan support on the stimulus package, but with the moral argument to go big in the short term to help those suffering the most, and the economic argument to go big in the long term to avoid a prolonged recession, he’s not willing to significantly cut the size of the bill or delay it longer than necessary to achieve it. The president has cited the lessons of 2009, when then-President Barack Obama’s push to get 60 votes in the Senate and fulfill his campaign promise of unifying America resulted in a weaker stimulus and, Democrats now argue, prolonged economic consequences.

“The way I see it, the biggest risk is not going too big, it’s if we go too small,” Biden said in a Feb. 5 White House address.

“We’ve been here before. When this nation hit the Great Recession that Barack and I inherited in 2009, I was asked to lead the effort on the economic recovery act to get it passed. It was a big recovery package, roughly $800 billion. I did everything I could to get it passed, including getting three Republicans to change their votes and vote for it. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t quite big enough. It stemmed the crisis, but the recovery could have been faster and even bigger. Today we need an answer that meets the challenge of this crisis, not one that falls short.”

Democrats are willing to use the process of budget reconciliation to pass the bill with just 50 votes in the Senate and Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaker. It’s the same process used by Republicans to pass a massive tax overhaul in 2017 that disproportionately benefited the wealthy. This has undercut GOP messaging against the Biden relief bill on both the method the Democrats are taking to pass it and the potential impact on the budget deficit and national debt.

Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris at a White House meeting last week. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

As cited in the Donilon memo, polling supports the stimulus package. A CBS/YouGov survey found that 83 percent of respondents support another relief package, while Quinnipiac found 68 percent support specifically for the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Those findings align with a Yahoo News/YouGov poll earlier this month that found 74 percent support for $2,000 stimulus checks. Even the aspects of the bill that are being debated among Democrats — like a $15 minimum wage hike — had majority support (58 percent, versus 31 percent opposed) in the Yahoo News/YouGov poll.

Other provisions in Biden’s proposed legislation include extending federal unemployment benefits along with funding for vaccine distribution, nutrition programs, schools, and state and local governments.

“I learned based on the polling data they want everything in the plan — not a joke. Everything in the plan,” Biden said Wednesday. “I asked a rhetorical question: Those who opposed the plan, what don't they like? ... Don’t they want to help people with nutrition? Don’t they want to help people be able to pay their mortgages? Don’t they want to help people get their unemployment insurance? Don’t they want to make sure that people are able to stay in their homes without being thrown out of their homes in the middle of this god-awful pandemic? What don't they like?”

This is a departure from 2009, when despite Obama's broad popularity and the fact that the country was in the grips of a deep economic crisis, polling showed the bill with just a slight majority approving. A CNN poll found support at 54 percent, while in the weeks leading up to the February vote, Gallup found support simmering in the low 50s.

House Democrats hope to have the current bill on the floor by the end of next week, with the expiration of expanded unemployment benefits set for mid-March serving as a deadline for legislators.

“I’m hoping Democrats can learn the lesson from 2009, and it’s that we don’t have much time,” Katz said. “The end of the first 100 days is approaching quickly, and we need to get some real stuff done for the American people. Democrats need to show that they can deliver. They need to show that if they’re in charge the American people are better off.”


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