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Many Americans, us included, supported President Joe Biden’s candidacy in part because of his experience with and commitment to bipartisan dealmaking. After four years of Donald Trump’s divisive brand of politics, Biden offered a chance to move toward a more unified nation. Toward reconciliation.
In the first two weeks of the Biden presidency, congressional Democrats are now pursuing a different kind of reconciliation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have started the process known as budget reconciliation, which allows certain fiscal legislation to be passed without being subject to a Senate fillibuster. This would potentially allow Democrats to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal through the narrowly divided House and Senate without having to secure any Republican support.
Senate Democrats voted Tuesday afternoon to proceed with the process. That jumpstarts debate this week.
Using reconciliation is hardly an unprecedented maneuver. Republicans used the process in 2017 to pass tax cuts without Democrats, and tried to do the same in a failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act earlier that year.
The move toward using it now right out of the gate, however, is hard to reconcile with Biden’s rhetoric about bipartisanship and unity. And more importantly, it may add an unnecessary additional layer of combativeness in Congress, set an unfortunate tone for the next two years even among more moderate members, and undermine hopes for future bipartisan work on other important issues like expanding access to health care, reforming the immigration system and addressing climate change.
Who cares, some on the left might say. Republicans haven’t exactly been focused on togetherness and bipartisan cooperation for the past four years. Why should Democrats even try to work with them, now that Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress? Some are already saying it.
There’s an important difference, however. Trump basically ran on a message of division in both 2016 and 2020. His 2017 inaugural address was more of a redress of grievances than a hopeful message of what Americans can do together. Biden, on the other hand, promised to be a president for Democrats and Republicans alike. His recent inauguration speech made a strong appeal to unity.
Biden still has a chance to follow through on that appeal in the early stages of debate over the next round of COVID relief. He and consensus-minded Democrats in Congress should not waste it. They should be wary of embracing reconciliation so soon while there is still an avenue to work together across the aisle before expanded unemployment benefits lapse again in mid March, and while efforts to get Americans vaccinated quickly are still beset with challenges and frustrations. There is still an opportunity to help Americans in need and continue on the road to recovery without jettisoning hopes for a more collaborative atmosphere at the onset of a new Congress.
Given the steps in the reconciliation process and past examples of how long it can take, forging a bipartisan deal to start might actually deliver quicker additional relief in areas like resources for vaccinations, testing and health care providers where there is widespread agreement. That money could be out the door quickly, and would not preclude continued negotiations on areas that require greater review and debate. If that additional agreement doesn’t materialize, Democrats could then try to move forward with reconciliation at least having exhausted other less divisive options.
“Everyone agrees that there’s a need for speed in regards to getting more vaccinations out to the American people,” Maine’s 2nd Congressional District Rep. Jared Golden told WMTW on Monday. “There’s no question the fastest way to do that would be a bipartisan agreement.”
Bipartisan cooperation takes good faith engagement from both sides, and there are plenty of Republicans currently criticizing Biden’s actions after his call for unity who have shown little willingness to unify or work toward national healing themselves. They should not set this conversation. People also should not confuse those members with the group of 10 Republican senators who met with Biden at the White House Monday night for two hours to discuss their own $618 billion COVID relief framework, or with Republican members of the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House.
The group of senators, led by Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins, welcomed Biden’s willingness to meet and to keep talking after Monday’s meeting.
“It was an excellent meeting, and we are very appreciative that in his first official meeting in the Oval Office, President Biden chose to spend so much time with us discussing the response to the COVID crisis,” the group of Republicans said in a joint statement Monday night. “We presented our proposal to the President, and we had a very productive exchange of views.”
It remains to be seen if this talking will turn into action. Comments from the White House almost immediately raised doubts about that, even as the Republican senators took a slightly more hopeful posture Monday night.
We still hold some of that hope, even after Tuesday’s procedural vote. But the hope can only be sustained if the members of the Republican group are willing to treat their proposal as a floor for negotiations, not a ceiling, and the Biden administration and legislative Democrats are willing to focus initially on funding immediate COVID needs where there is more widespread agreement. This would show a continued commitment to bipartisanship, and yes, even unity.