On the campaign trail, Biden often touted his ability to cut deals with Republicans, and progressives worried this was the moment when the new president would begin hacking away at his sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal in the name of bipartisanship.
But what happened next has — for the most part — heartened progressives and built some fledgling trust in Biden among a wing of the party that’s long been suspicious of him.
After Biden listened to the Republicans’ proposal for a bill that’s just a third the size of his own, Democrats pushed forward the next day with legislation to fast-track the much larger aid package they favor — showing a willingness to pass it with or without Republican support.
“We are not going to dilute, dither, or delay,” said Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer.
Biden told Democratic lawmakers to “go big” with the package in meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, emphasizing that he believes a smaller aid package could lead to lingering negative economic effects, particularly high unemployment.
Despite all the back slapping with Republicans, Biden didn’t appear to blink.
“He will do his best, but unity doesn’t mean unanimity and unity doesn’t mean letting the minority party block progress in the Senate,” Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, said Wednesday after emerging from a White House meeting with Biden.
Biden’s defense of the scope of the bill, in addition to some early nominations of progressive favorites in his administration and aggressive executive actions on climate change, have some in his party’s left wing feeling cautiously optimistic about a president who they feared would resist being bold.
Representative Ilhan Omar, a member of “The Squad” of liberal lawmakers, tweeted last week that the Biden administration “has acted on many of progressives’ top asks” in its first week.
“Putting a $1.9 trillion proposal on the table and then sticking to that proposal despite pressure were pieces of really good news for progressives and really all Americans,” said Adam Green, the cofounder of the liberal group Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Biden’s bill includes $160 billion for vaccines, testing, and hospitals, $170 billion for schools, and $350 billion for states and local government to keep police, firefighters, and other public employees on the job. Additional funds would go to shoring up unemployment and sending direct checks of up to $1,400 to many Americans. The Republicans’ more modest proposal only fully overlaps with Biden’s on the $160 billion in COVID funding.
The pressure on Biden to compromise is real. Some Republicans are already attacking him for not working harder to gain their support, saying he won the election as a moderate unifier.
“Writing a bill and then demanding the other side support it is not anyone’s idea of bipartisanship,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday.
Senator Mitt Romney of Utah predicted that not a single Republican would vote for Biden’s plan if he doesn’t significantly change it, particularly due to the hundreds of billions of dollars allocated to local governments, which Republicans believe is too much.
“President Biden has been preaching unity, unity, unity,” said Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, urging him to focus the bill solely on COVID-19. “We really need to come together.”
On Wednesday, the White House signaled it would be open to compromise on one point: lowering the income threshold for Americans who would receive the $1,400 checks. In Biden’s proposal, individuals who make $75,000 a year and under, based on their last tax return, qualify for cash. Republicans want that threshold lower, closer to $40,000.
But neither Biden nor Democrats have shown a willingness to significantly lower the price tag of the overall bill to fit in with what the 10 Republicans have proposed.
“They’ve made it very clear that while they are willing to sit down and negotiate with Republicans, they’re not going to cut a bad deal just for the sake of cutting a deal,” said Jim Manley, who served as a top aide to former Senate majority leader Harry Reid and has been critical of Biden in the past for conceding too much in his deal-making. “This may in fact be a key indicator of where they’re going to for the next two years.”
Biden is striking a very different posture from 2009, when he convinced a handful of Republican senators to get on board with a stimulus bill by shrinking the aid package significantly, likely slowing the economic recovery after the Great Recession. When Republicans won the House majority from Democrats in 2010, prospects for further aid died.
“We look back at his first administration in 2009 and we can draw real similarities between the opportunities that existed in that moment of leadership and the opportunities that exist in this one,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, president of the Center for Popular Democracy grass-roots group. “We think there’s a real lesson to be learned from that.”
Progressives now have hope that Biden appears to have learned that lesson, even as he works with a much slimmer Democratic majority in Congress this time around.
“I think it’s a clear message that he understands the mandate that he was elected on,” said John Paul Mejia, spokesman for the Sunrise Movement, a liberal group that pushes for legislation to address climate change.
Democrats won two Senate seats — and the chamber’s majority — in traditionally red Georgia last month in part by promising they would send bigger stimulus checks than the Republican-controlled Senate had been willing to approve.
“If you send Jon [Ossoff] and the reverend [Raphael Warnock] to Washington, those $2,000 checks will go out the door, restoring hope and decency for so many people who are struggling right now,” Biden said in a rally in Atlanta for the Democrats shortly before the runoff.
Those checks remain the main area where congressional progressives believe Biden’s package is not bold enough. Congress eventually approved checks totaling $600 in January, and the $1,400 proposed by Biden is meant to add up to the original $2,000 that he promised. Many progressives, including Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston, have called for the full $2,000 checks in the new legislation, as well as monthly recurring payments to families until the pandemic is over.
Liberal members of Congress, including Omar, have said they would be unhappy if fewer people receive the $1,400 checks in a compromise with Republicans.
And liberals are waiting to break out the champagne until they see the final bill pass, which could take weeks.
“So far I think that it’s great that he held off on watering anything down,” Mejia said. “Nonetheless the real test is going to come from what he delivers and from what the rest of his party delivers.”