Editor’s Note: Lanhee J. Chen is a regular contributor for CNN Opinion. He is the David and Diane Steffy Fellow in American Public Policy Studies at the Hoover Institution and the director of Domestic Policy Studies in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University. Chen previously served as the policy director of the Romney-Ryan 2012 presidential campaign and senior adviser on Policy to the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The US Senate is expected to pass a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill in the coming days before it heads to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law. This may seem like a major win for the new administration and congressional Democrats, but it’s actually a Pyrrhic victory – one that they may come to regret in the weeks and months ahead.
The expectation was that Biden would work to find common ground with Republicans on economic recovery, particularly after the two sides came together in late December 2020 to enact the last round of Covid-19 relief. Despite President Biden’s many calls for unity and bipartisanship, however, Democrats have acted unilaterally this time around.
Because this is the first major legislative initiative of Biden’s presidency, the Democrats’ unwillingness to compromise may have poisoned the well when it comes to future bipartisan action. This go-it-alone approach will only make it more politically challenging for Republicans to step out and work with Democrats in the future on issues such as prescription drug pricing, tougher action against China or infrastructure legislation.
Some Democrats argue that Republicans have never been interested in negotiating with them in good faith to reach an agreement on a spending bill. More broadly, progressives believe that bipartisan action is a mirage that isn’t worth pursuing. They argue that because Democrats control the House and hold the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, which is split 50-50, President Biden should act aggressively and boldly, even if it means discarding the possibility of future bipartisan wins. Indeed, it seems this perspective has prevailed on Biden.
This point of view ignores the fact that Republicans have recently introduced legislation that could attract support from Democrats. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has been the most prolific legislator in this regard, with one analyst arguing that he is “making a credible bid to be the most significant policy entrepreneur of the Biden era.” Romney teamed up with Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, for example, to propose legislation that would both increase the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour and index future hikes to inflation, while at the same time requiring employers to use the E-Verify system to ensure that they are hiring workers eligible for employment in the United States.
Romney also introduced an overhaul of how the federal government provides financial assistance to families – a policy proposal that Biden’s Chief of Staff Ron Klain tweeted was “an encouraging sign that bipartisan action to reduce child poverty IS possible.”
Both Republicans and Democrats have also signaled support for legislation to strengthen the US supply chain in critical areas like public health and defense, and a number of Republican lawmakers recently attended a White House meeting to discuss possible legislative reforms. By forcing through the relief bill, however, Democrats may have poured cold water on any hopes Republicans may have had of working across the aisle on these issues.
There’s a second reason why Biden and the Democrats erred when they decided to push the spending package forward without bipartisan support: They handed Republicans an opportunity to unite when the prevailing narrative is that the party and the conservative movement, more broadly, are fundamentally divided.
To pass their spending bill, Democrats are using a legislative maneuver called budget reconciliation – which allows legislation directly impacting spending or revenues to advance in the Senate on a simple majority vote. In recent years, budget reconciliation has been used to advance policies that have little or no hope of securing bipartisan support. For example, Republicans used reconciliation in 2017 to advance their proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which didn’t work in their favor.
By relying on budget reconciliation to pass the relief bill with a party-line vote, rather than engaging in negotiations to produce legislation with bipartisan support, Democrats unified the congressional GOP on policy and gave them a reason to come together in opposition to Biden’s plan. Had Biden decided to work with the group of 10 Senate Republicans who offered an alternative to the spending bill in late January, it would have put some Republicans in a difficult predicament: join a bipartisan effort to pass an economic relief package, or vote against it and risk some political backlash.
Instead, the Democrats’ attempt to force through the relief bill gave House Republicans the chance to find strength in numbers. In fact, Republicans in the House of Representatives – regardless of how they voted on former President Donald Trump’s recent impeachment – unanimously opposed the Democrats’ recovery package. In the upper chamber, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski appears open to supporting the Democrats’ spending package, but the likelihood is that every other GOP senator will join their colleagues in the House and vote against it.
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If all goes according to plan for Senate Democrats, they’ll be able to deliver a spending bill that Biden will sign into law sometime next week. Democrats will celebrate the accomplishment, but the win will ultimately cause long-term challenges and dissuade any Republicans who may have been open to working across the aisle from believing President Biden’s calls for bipartisanship are genuine. If he is unable to move forward on other policy priorities in a bipartisan fashion, it will undercut the image Biden wants to cultivate. More importantly, it will be a huge loss for Americans who wanted the two parties to come together to finally address some of our country’s most pressing challenges.