As Democrats move on from their $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package to Biden’s new infrastructure bill, they’re confronting the reality that they might not be able to get much done, legislatively, without Senate Republicans, unless they push bills through using the reconciliation process, a process used for budget and tax bills that can only be used a limited number of times.
While Democrats have a slim margin in the House, too, that chamber only requires a majority vote to pass legislation; the Senate requires 60 votes to cut off debate on most legislation. It’s a rule meant to encourage senators from both sides of the aisle to come together and negotiate, and form some kind of consensus.
Biden pushed his $1.9 trillion covid relief bill through the Senate with the support of all 50 Democrats and nary a Republican, yet later declared it a resounding bipartisan triumph.
The president and his advisers have also signaled that, while they are planning robust outreach to Republican lawmakers, they are prepared to pass his infrastructure plan on the votes of Democrats alone — and call it a bipartisan victory.
“If you looked up ‘bipartisan’ in the dictionary, I think it would say support from Republicans and Democrats,” said Anita Dunn, a senior Biden adviser. “It doesn’t say the Republicans have to be in Congress.”
But that’s a pretty different definition of “bipartisanship” than the one Washington has been accustomed to for a long time — and it’s not how Biden defined it while campaigning for president last year.
As the 2020 election approached, Biden included a section about bipartisanship in his standard stump speech. Here’s how he phrased it on Oct. 12 in Cincinnati, about three weeks before Election Day:
“We need to revive the spirit of bipartisanship in this country. I know that sounds bizarre in light of where we are. The spirit of being able to work with one another.
When I say that, and I said that from the time I announced, I was told that, ‘Maybe that the way things used to work, Joe, you got a lot done before Joe, but you can’t do that anymore.’
Well, I’m here to tell you and say we can, and we must, if we’re going to get anything done. Democracy requires consensus. I’m running as a proud Democrat, but I will govern as an American president. There will be no blue states and red states with me. It’s one America. I’ll work with Democrats and Republicans.”
There isn’t a specific promise there to get GOP votes for legislation, but Biden is promising here to “work with” Republicans as president. And Biden repeated a version of this other campaign stops, including that week in Detroit and Miramar, Fla.
It was a stark contrast to the politics of division that dominated the Donald Trump presidency. when there was such a division between Democrats and Republicans (who had just a few more than 50 votes but like Democrats couldn’t reach 60) that the Senate under then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) often spent its time confirming federal judges, which these days only requires a majority vote, but got little done legislatively.
A few days after his Cincinnati speech, at a town hall televised on ABC News on Oct. 15., Biden did get more specific:
“I’m going to pick up the phone and call them and say, ‘Let’s get together. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to move forward here.’
Because there’s so many things we really do agree on. And with Trump out of the way, the vindictiveness of a president going after Republicans who don’t do exactly what he says gets taken away. There’s going to be, I promise you, between four and eight Republican senators who are going to be willing to move on things where there’s bipartisan consensus.”
That’s a much more pointed promise — and seems much more relevant to the issue that’s becoming more and more of a thorn in Democrats’ sides, the filibuster. Democrats’ slim margin in the Senate means they need every single member of their caucus (and tie-breaker Vice President Harris) just to have a simple majority — but they’re still 10 senators away from the 60 votes they would need to end debate and invoke cloture.
So far, Biden has seemingly not picked up the phone and figured out “how we’re going to move forward here,” as he promised on Oct. 15, other than one meeting at the White House about his coronavirus relief plan that Biden officials stressed was not a negotiating session.
Biden seemed sensitive about that at Monday’s Oval Office meeting with a bipartisan group of senators, insisting that the meeting is not merely “window dressing.” But it’s unclear so far whether the meeting moved beyond an initial conversation into actual proposals being exchanged.
On Nov. 7, the day Biden proclaimed victory, he promised to work with Republicans again, but this time put the onus on members of Congress to do their part:
“The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision. It’s a choice we make … And I call on the Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, to make that choice with me.”
That was the first step toward the argument Biden seems to be making now — that he has laid out popular ideas, and the onus is on Republicans to come to the table to negotiate.
But again, the definition of what Biden would consider “negotiating” is a bit hazy. So far, it has often seemed to mean simply agreeing to vote with Democratic proposals.
“He’s proposed a way to pay for it, which is what he thinks the responsible thing is to do. And he hopes they’ll come to the table with ideas,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news briefing Monday.
But whether Republicans do offer concrete counterproposals is an open question — and whether Biden is actually willing to deviate from his own proposals in any major way is even more open. The Senate parliamentarian has opened the door for Democrats to use the reconciliation process for an infrastructure bill, but one senator, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that he wants to see the Senate return to “regular order” and pass a bipartisan bill instead.
There’s pressure on Republicans to come to the table, and pressure on Biden to show he’s willing to make concessions, instead of just having meetings. Neither side seems to have made a productive attempt at it yet.