WASHINGTON – Joe Biden's ambitious opening bid, his $1.9 trillion American Rescue economic package, will test the new president's relationship with Congress and force a crucial choice between his policy vision and a desire for bipartisan unity.
Biden became president this week with the pandemic having already forced Congress to approve $4 trillion in aid, including $900 billion just last month. And those efforts have politically exhausted Republican lawmakers, particularly conservatives who are panning the new proposal as an expensive, unworkable liberal wish list.
Yet, Democrats, now with control of the House, Senate and White House, want the new president to deliver ever more sweeping aid and economic change.
On Friday, Biden took a few beginning steps, signing executive orders at the White House. But he also declared a need to do much more and quickly, saying that even with decisive action the nation is unlikely to stop the pandemic in the next several months and well over 600,000 could die.
“The bottom line is this: We are in a national emergency. We need to act like we're in a national emergency,” he said. “So we got to move with everything we got. We've got to do it together. I don't believe Democrats or Republicans are going hungry and losing jobs, I believe, Americans are going hungry and losing jobs.”
The limits of what Biden can achieve on his own without Congress was evident in the pair of executive orders he signed Friday. The orders would increase food aid, protect job seekers on unemployment, make it easier to obtain government aid and clear a path for federal workers and contractors to get a $15 hourly minimum wage.
Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, called the orders a “critical lifeline,” rather than a substitute for the larger aid package that he said must be passed quickly.
All of this leaves Biden with a decision that his team has avoided publicly addressing, which is the trade-off ahead for the new president. He can try to appease Republicans, particularly those in the Senate whose votes will be needed for bipartisan passage, by sacrificing some of his agenda. Or, he can try to pass as much of his proposal as possible on a party-line basis.
Well aware of all that, Biden is a seasoned veteran of Capitol Hill deal-making and has assembled a White House staff already working privately with lawmakers and their aides to test the bounds of bipartisanship.
On Sunday, Deese, will meet privately with a bipartisan group of 16 senators, mostly centrists, who were among those instrumental in crafting and delivering the most recent round of COVID aid.
The ability to win over that coalition, led by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., will be central to any path, a test-run for working with Congress on a bipartisan basis.
“Any new COVID relief package must be focused on the public health and economic crisis at hand,” Collins said in a Friday statement.