President Biden is right to demand a big, bold coronavirus economic relief package. And while seeking bipartisanship is a laudable goal, far more urgent is the need to move quickly to get Americans the relief they need during the economic catastrophe the pandemic has caused.
Republicans should be every bit as committed to that goal as Democrats are, but if the $618 billion plan offered by a group of GOP lawmakers — amounting to less than a third of the $1.9 trillion Biden is seeking — serves only to be an instrument to stall talks, Democrats should move forward without them.
Biden met with the Republicans to discuss the proposal at the White House on Monday night and has been meeting with Democratic legislators remotely and in the Oval Office throughout the week. The Senate, meanwhile, voted to move forward on a path that would ultimately allow the measure to pass with a simple majority vote by mid-March to stave off a lapse in enhanced unemployment benefits.
Republicans have balked at the size of Biden’s proposal, citing fears of a ballooning deficit and money still unspent by state and local governments from past relief packages. (The former is a hypocritical argument given that congressional Republicans have happily added to the deficit with tax cuts but now decry doing so when it could help everyday Americans, and the latter has not obviated the need for direct payments to help families.) Biden has made clear, rightly so, that the GOP proposal is woefully inadequate.
Asked if, after meeting with Republicans, Biden’s number is still $1.9 trillion, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “It is.”
“The risk here, as he has said many times, is not going too big. It is going too small,” Psaki told reporters at Tuesday’s press briefing. “That continues to be his belief, and that’s why he supports the efforts by [majority] leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi to move this package forward.”
Psaki also correctly noted that using the budget reconciliation process doesn’t mean Democrats are going it alone, since Republicans have the ability to offer amendments and debate to shape the package.
But just as seeking bipartisan support should not come at the cost of giving Americans the robust relief package that they need, going big does not necessarily mean getting fixated on a particular number. There should be room for genuine good-faith compromise — which may be necessary even to wrangle enough Democrats behind the plan.
Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, voted with the other 49 Democrats to move forward with the budget reconciliation process, but added that he would like to see the relief — he neither endorsed nor dismissed Biden’s $1.9 trillion figure — targeted to the needs of Americans.
“Let me be clear — and these are words I shared with President Biden — our focus must be targeted on the COVID-19 crisis and Americans who have been most impacted by this pandemic,” Manchin said in a statement after the vote, adding: “I will only support proposals that will get us through and end the pain of this pandemic.”
In an interview Wednesday morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Manchin said that, in conversations with the president, Biden said he had learned the lessons from early in the Obama administration, when an effort to attract bipartisan support and keep Democrats unified resulted in a scaled-back stimulus even as the economy reeled.
“He said, basically, ‘I don’t want to go down the path we went down in 2009,’ ” Manchin said of his conversation with Biden.
Again, Biden is right to aim high. An economic crisis is no time to let the bogeyman of the deficit thwart ambitions to help people and stimulate growth, especially not after Republicans in Congress passed a massive corporate tax cut in 2017 projected to add an equivalent amount to the deficit. Without enough spending now, the economy could be crippled for years to come. But better targeting relief payments can indeed be a good idea to ensure that relief reaches Americans facing the most pressing economic needs, particularly those who have been chronically disadvantaged both before and during the pandemic, including people of color and minority-owned businesses. If such a program can be passed by Congress and carried out as rapidly and efficiently as a less-targeted stimulus package, it would be a fine compromise.
The bottom line, however, is that the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good when it comes to COVID-19 aid. Lawmakers must move quickly, get money in the hands of Americans, and thwart any delay tactics masquerading as bipartisan outreach.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.