Democrats and Republicans tangled over the size and scope of Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan Wednesday, despite the broad public support for the package and a new push by business leaders to get it passed – a sign of the difficulties facing the new President, who had hoped to be a bridge beyond Washington’s partisan gridlock.
But with the bill headed to the House floor for a vote as early as Friday, Republicans face significant political risk by forming a unified front of opposition to the legislation, especially given that nearly 7 in 10 Americans supported the bill in a Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month.
After losing control of the White House and the US Senate in November, and still relegated to the minority in the US House, Republican leaders hope to win back suburban voters in 2022, in part by earning their trust that they would do a better job than Democrats easing the transition back to normal life after the Covid-19 pandemic. One area the GOP has been heavily focused on is getting kids back into school, for example, because they see it as a winning issue at the ballot box in 2022. Yet their opposition to Biden’s legislation could complicate those efforts, since many members will likely end up on the record voting against a Covid relief bill that would provide money for exactly that purpose.
Republicans are attempting to sharpen their arguments against legislation that is intended to help speed up the delivery of vaccines; send direct payments of up to $1,400 to Americans making up to $75,000 annually; extend key pandemic unemployment programs; provide aid to struggling small business owners; and dedicate nearly $130 billion for K-12 schools to make safety improvements aimed at allowing them to reopen (or stay open).
The thorniest issue within the bill is the proposed increase of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, which Republicans argue would cripple small businesses. The minimum wage proposal is also dividing Democratic senators, with both Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona expressing concerns about what the effect of the proposal would be. Democrats have thin margins in both chambers, relying on Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties in the evenly divided Senate, so they cannot afford to lose any Democratic support for the relief package.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy described the legislation Wednesday as too expensive and riddled with projects that amount to gifts to Democrats’ liberal constituencies. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has amplified that argument by alleging that the Democrats’ bill contains “hundreds of millions of dollars for pet projects without a shred of relevance to the pandemic or the recovery.”
“I think all Americans agree (with) exactly what Republicans wanted to have happen,” McCarthy said during a GOP news conference Wednesday, where he noted that he hadn’t spoken to any GOP House members who support the bill. “We want to go back to work, back to school, back to health. Unfortunately this bill is too costly, too corrupt, and too liberal.”
“This is the wrong path and this is not what President Biden said he would do at the inaugural,” McCarthy said. “This seems like a payout for those who agree with them politically,” he said of Democrats.
One strategy that McConnell, McCarthy and House GOP Whip Steve Scalise are now deploying is to draw attention to funding projects within the bill that are tied to the districts and states of key Democratic leaders. The House GOP leaders singled out two examples on Wednesday: a $100 million rapid transit project in the Bay Area in the home state of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and $1.5 million that would be spent on the Seaway International Bridge over the St. Lawrence River between Canada and upstate New York, which is Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s home state.