A Historic Bill, but at What Cost?

On Saturday, on a party-line vote of 50 to 49, Senate Democrats passed H.R. 1319, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The lone absence was Alaskan Republican Dan Sullivan, who had to leave Washington to attend the funeral of his father-in-law. 

Sullivan’s absence did not make a difference, as Vice President Kamala Harris would have broken any tie votes, as she did on the motion to proceed before Sullivan left. A total of 20 of the 36 votes on H.R. 1319 and its various amendments were 50-49 votes and several more were 50-48. Only a handful of unimportant votes were anything but straight party-line roll calls. Now it is back to the House to work out any differences between the two bills. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she expects final passage on Tuesday, which will send the measure to President Biden.

So the question is, is this an unalloyed victory for Biden and congressional Democrats, or is it more of a Pyrrhic victory?

The stated purpose of the American Rescue Plan Act was to address the coronavirus pandemic, boosting funding for vaccines and testing, as well as the resulting economic repercussions. 

Democrats repeatedly emphasized the urgency of getting help to those who have been hurt, pointing to the fact that extended unemployment insurance benefits are scheduled to end the week of March 14. Given the exigent nature of the crisis, Democrats said they were willing to push the legislation through via the budget-reconciliation process—and party-line votes—if necessary. Over and over, Democrat after Democrat professed dismay that no Republicans would cross the aisle to support it, implying that the GOP was unsympathetic to the suffering resulting from this plague. Yet while the White House would not budge for Senate Republicans, when they hit resistance from moderate Democrats, then concessions similar to those Republicans had made were suddenly possible.

Yet if the extended unemployment insurance was so urgent, why was it not pushed through as a stand-alone measure weeks ago? Regarding immediate funding for vaccines and testing, the 10 Republican senators who met with the president five weeks ago offered a measure containing identical funding levels for both as the Democrats had proposed. Attracting 60 votes would hardly have been difficult for these core provisions, and probably not necessary as a filibuster on those items would be pretty unlikely. 

It would seem that after that one token meeting with GOP senators on Feb. 1, Biden effectively gave up on working anything out with Republicans. 

So why would Democrats break so many eggs to make this omelet? The answer likely lies in the other elements in the package. As Tony Romm, Jeff Stein, and Erica Werner wrote in Saturday’s Washington Post, “With its massive price tag, and major expansion of federal social safety net programs, the package is set to count among one of the largest rescue measures in U.S. history, reflecting Democrats’ pledges to erase disparities that long predate the deadly pandemic.” 

Biden himself called the legislation “significant” and “historic,” noting that Bernie Sanders himself dubbed it “the most progressive bill he’s ever seen passed since he’s been here.”

That sounds a bit more than simply an emergency-relief package that simply had to be done on the quick, no matter what the political cost.

And recall that until the Senate parliamentarian tossed out the part that would have raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, long a Democratic Party goal. Many parts of this bill may or may not make good policy, but how directly and immediately tied to the coronavirus pandemic are they? Aren’t these measures significant enough to warrant debate and consideration on their own? Perhaps more importantly, is it worth it to the Biden White House that this happened on such an acrimonious basis, risking poisoning the well ahead of future votes on Democratic priorities when the reconciliation option may not be available to them? As a 40-year congressional staffer and lobbyist told me, “In theory, Congress could pass three reconciliation bills for each fiscal year … one for revenues, another for spending, and a third for debt limit. Usually, Congress combines all three in one bill.” Bottom line: There aren’t many of these reconciliation arrows in a president’s quiver.

A former chief of staff to a Republican senator told me, “I was awed by Biden’s inaugural speech.  His insistent appeals to unity and his pledge to ‘work just as hard for those who didn’t support [him] as for those who did’ were political music. It was a rhetorical moment that could have been cultivated into a theme and a reservoir of goodwill for his presidency. [But] he, or at least his staff, dropped it like a hot potato.” 

Biden may have, in the early moments of his term, crippled his ability to do grand bargains.

When the histories of the Biden presidency are written, there’s a fair chance that this will be looked upon as a serious error of judgment—one that may plague this administration for a good while.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on March 9, 2021.