Democrats move to go it alone on Biden’s COVID-19 aid plan

Democrats take first step to fast-track Biden’s $1.9 trillion package in the face of Republican opposition to price tag.

The US Capitol building
Democrats who control the US Congress are using short-cut budgeting procedures to advance Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan [Leah Millis/Reuters]

Democrats in the United States Senate on Tuesday took the first step towards fast-tracking President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid bill without Republican support.

The Senate voted along party lines, with Democrats edging out Republicans 50-49, to open debate on a fiscal 2021 budget resolution with coronavirus aid spending instructions.

Using this strategy unlocks a legislative tool Democrats need to enact Biden’s package in the face of Republican opposition to its steep price tag.

Biden told Democratic senators during an online luncheon meeting on Tuesday that a counter-proposal offered last night by Republicans was inadequate, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters.

The US president had met at the White House on February 1 with 10 centrist Republican senators to discuss their proposal for a scaled-back, $618bn plan.

Biden “told Senate Republicans that the $600bn that they proposed was way too small”, Schumer said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat who sets the US Senate legislative agenda, has cited calls by economists for more federal stimulus to help the US economy [Al Drago/Reuters]

The US has recorded more than 446,000 coronavirus-related deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, the highest total in the world, and the pandemic has left millions of American families reeling.

Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said on Tuesday that the Republican proposal fell far short in a number of areas, including funding to reopen schools.

Republicans called for spending $20bn on schools, compared with Biden’s proposal for $170bn. “We think that’s what it’s going to take to reach people,” Bernstein told the CNN broadcast network.

Senate evenly divided

Biden’s package faces a potential Republican roadblock in the 100-member Senate, which is divided 50-50, but requires a 60-vote threshold to pass most legislation.

The budget resolution, if approved by the House of Representatives and Senate, would activate a legislative tool called reconciliation, allowing for Senate passage with 51 votes that would include 48 Democrats, two independents who caucus with them and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Republican Senator Patrick Toomey was absent for the vote. His office said he was delayed by bad weather. Toomey’s absence meant that Harris was not needed to cast her first tie-breaking vote on Tuesday.

If the measure passes both chambers it would mark the first time congressional Democrats use the manoeuvre to flex their legislative muscle since winning razor-thin control of the Senate in two runoff elections last month in Georgia. They already controlled the House.

The House was expected to take a procedural vote on the budget resolution during votes scheduled for Tuesday evening.

Schumer insisted he would prefer the COVID-19 aid effort be bipartisan, even though the budget process being used provides the legislative means for his fellow Democrats to move ahead without Republicans if need be.

But Republicans view the reconciliation strategy as a partisan gambit that undermines Biden’s call for unity in the aftermath of a January 6 Capitol riot by supporters of then-President Donald Trump which left five people dead.

“We passed five bipartisan COVID packages,” said Senator Todd Young, a Republican. “It’s not a good signal that he is adopting a take-it-or-leave-it approach right after his president delivers an inaugural address based on unity.”

“We’re off to a totally partisan start,” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell also said.

While expressing an openness to work with Republicans, the White House said Biden firmly supports the Democratic approach.

“He supports the efforts by Leader Schumer and Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi to move this package forward,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a news conference.

Partisan politics may also slow Biden’s COVID-19 agenda as the Senate moves toward a February 9 impeachment trial of Trump, charged with inciting insurrection in relation to the attack on the Capitol last month.

Source: Reuters