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When President Joe Biden marked the terrible milestone of a half million deaths from COVID-19, he told us how he keeps this massive number in perspective. Every morning a staffer gives him a card with the precise number of Americans who died. That day it was 500,071 people, each unique and important in their own right.
Besides having a consoler-in-chief, we have a chief executive who acts with purpose, takes responsibility and has real recovery plans.
Biden’s legislative approach is comprehensive, including vaccines, unemployment insurance, checks to Americans, small business support, rental assistance, childcare help, health care, support for schools and state and local governments and more. Misrepresented in Republican talking points, it is backed by three-quarters of Americans, including 60 percent of Republican voters, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many economists and Republican mayors and governors.
Now Congress must act.
But, given what’s happened with the Republican Party, the weight for action falls heavily on congressional Democrats.
Today’s Republican party doesn’t have much of a policy emphasis. In 2020 it didn’t even adopt a party platform. Moreover, it is divided.
One of the parts of Republicanism today is frankly Trumpist. At the CPAC conference in Florida over the weekend, a gold statue of Trump epitomized former President Donald Trump’s centrality for this faction.
Trumpism involves populist language even though he adopted agendas helping big business while hurting consumers and workers. Trump backed relief checks to people and businesses but didn’t do enough to tackle the disease. He promoted xenophobia. White supremacist, conspiracy-mongering groups stormed the Capitol to keep Trump in power.
The Trumpist faction is a huge share of Republicans. That’s why the Maine Republican Party sent a critical letter to Sen. Susan Collins after she found Trump guilty of inciting and not responding to the Jan. 6 insurrection. The letter also falsely claimed “chaos in the streets” was fomented by people who said the 2016 election was stolen.
The non-Trumpist part of the GOP, the Republican establishment, also has a limited policy focus. They’ve now claimed an interest in deficits, civility and bipartisanship, which they ignored in the Trump years. Under Leader Mitch McConnell and nearly always with the votes of Collins, the Senate was a machine for confirming judges who were often young and too frequently unqualified. Otherwise it passed a tax cut that mostly helped corporations and the wealthy although trickle down economics doesn’t work.
Because of the Senate filibuster, which is just a rule that has and can be changed, currently 60 Senate votes are needed to pass most legislation.
Biden’s American Rescue Plan is using budget reconciliation, a process to pass spending bills with a majority of votes.
Every House Republican voted against it plus two Democrats. One was Rep. Jared Golden. When he voted against starting the reconciliation process, he said that getting support for vaccines needed to happen right away and he didn’t want to wait for a bigger bill.
Now Golden contends he isn’t sure all the help will be needed. He voted against the package, including what he previously said was urgently necessary, saying he’d prefer to pass standalone bills if needed in a few months.
But this explanation doesn’t work.
The professionals who drafted the bill didn’t pull numbers out of a hat. They planned ahead, which is a good thing. If recovery happens more rapidly than predicted, unneeded funds won’t get spent. If they’re right, funds will be available.
And Golden’s rationale overlooks political realities. Given Republicans’ history of unified opposition when Democratic presidents are in power — even when the nation is in crisis — there won’t be filibuster-proof margins in the Senate to pass separate bills later.
Careful policy analysis and a clear-eyed view of partisan dynamics and Senate processes are why the reconciliation route was chosen to deliver aid for what’s needed immediately and months from now.
After the Senate passes its relief bill and a final version is enacted by both houses of Congress, we can look forward to it being signed by President Biden, and to brighter days ahead.
Amy Fried is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.