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Democrats face their first big challenge to stay united with massive Covid-19 relief bill

Posted January 28, 2021 8:44 p.m. EST

— Senate Democrats are staring down a massive undertaking as they plan to push ahead with reconciliation, a process that will be an early test of party unity even if it allows them to pass a $1.9 trillion Covid relief proposal without any Republican votes.

New Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has absolutely no room for error and he must convince every single Democrat to vote together or risk letting Biden's first legislative priority falter under his leadership.

The House and Senate could move as soon as next week on a budget resolution that gives committees instructions to begin work on the $1.9 trillion relief bill. While not every Democrat has publicly voiced how they would vote on the resolution and the price tag of the bill is still up for debate, many have said they are comfortable taking that first step even if they have concerns about what will ultimately end up being included in a package.

"I would probably vote for it initially and then wait and see how the bill comes out," said Sen. Jon Tester, a moderate Democrat from Montana.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia who has expressed concerns about the $1.9 trillion price tag, wouldn't say if he'd back the budget resolution when repeatedly asked, saying, "We're gonna try to make Joe Biden successful."

Republicans have publicly rejected the $1.9 trillion figure, but the White House hasn't backed off, signaling to Democratic senators on a call Thursday that they believe it's the right number.

"I think we would make a mistake to go too far below the mark that Biden" has set, Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, told CNN. "It's a big number, but I think it is a big moment and I think we need to assume that this is our one chance to make the investments on Covid and economic relief in 2021."

Schumer's challenge

Underscoring the urgency is the reality for Democrats that the economy is still struggling to reboot as Covid continues to ravage the country. Democrats are also cognizant of early mistakes in the Obama administration when Democrats spent months trying to win over Republicans on health care only to ultimately move ahead on their own.

Asked whether Biden officials Brian Deese, the director of the White House's National Economic Council, and Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator, told Democrats Thursday to go ahead with budget reconciliation, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, "They just want us to get this thing passed. They talked about the economic data, which are looking grimmer by the minute. The unemployment numbers are very worrisome as are the housing numbers."

But agreeing to get something passed and sorting out the details are two distinct steps. The complications will only intensify in the weeks ahead. Once the budget passes, multiple committees in the House and Senate will begin writing legislation that will force Democrats to make tough decisions about where they want to go as a party -- not just on spending, but on issues like raising the minimum wage. While many Democrats support a provision like raising the minimum wage to $15 in isolation, cramming it through using the budget reconciliation process has raised concern.

"We are a big tent and that means that getting 50 votes on anything is not easy," Murphy said. "It's not possible to have a majority leader who has a better sense of where all the pieces need to be than Schumer, but it is a challenge. Nobody should take it for granted."

Schumer's challenge mirrors the one Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had in 2017. While Senate Republicans quickly passed a budget resolution that gave the committees instructions to repeal and replace Obamacare, McConnell never could get his members on the same page for a bill that could actually pass.

"It's very difficult -- we experienced this when Republicans were in the majority -- very difficult to pass a budget. And so the process of getting to reconciliation when a party is doing it solo is a real challenge," said GOP Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas. "So it would be a difficult scenario for the Democrats to get to a point to use reconciliation for a Covid-19 package."

Bill-writing process set for week of February 8

The process of writing the bill is set to begin the week of February 8 and span at least eight committees across the Capitol. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal told CNN that his committee will be working in consultation with the Senate's Finance Committee, but the massive process will also require work from the House and Senate committees on small business, Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions, House Labor and House Energy and Commerce as well as Senate Banking.

"It is going to be an ongoing challenge," Neal said.

Those committees will also have to meet very specific and technical requirements so that the legislation can survive a review by the Senate parliamentarian. It could take weeks to finalize language and win support within the Democratic caucus.

In the House, the margin for error is also small. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would only be able to lose a handful of votes both on the budget resolution and the final bill. While the expectation is the budget resolution passes easily, factions of her caucus are already laying down markers of what they think the package should ultimately look like. Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar led a group of 50 House progressives in sending a letter to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday asking them to prioritize recurring direct checks in the next Covid-19 relief package. Members of the bipartisan Problem Solver's Caucus, a moderate group, has been talking with White House officials about their own concerns on making the final relief bill more targeted.

For their party, Republicans are outraged about the speed at which Democrats are moving ahead, with one Republican senator saying Thursday that it would be a massive mistake for Democrats to go ahead with reconciliation.

"The White House has to help us. They cannot be staying silent and encouraging Democrats to go forward," the senator said of reconciliation.

"It would be like declaring war around here at a time when it's bad enough and you have impeachment on top of it."

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