How Biden's massive Covid relief bill was put on a glide path to passage
Posted February 19, 2021 8:42 p.m. EST
CNN — It's not supposed to look this easy.
A little more than one month since President Joe Biden entered office, his cornerstone legislative priority -- a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package -- is on the path to passage by the deadline his administration set, largely mirroring the key elements he originally proposed.
While Biden's hope for GOP support on Capitol Hill has all but disappeared in the last several weeks, his enthusiasm for the proposal -- and his view that despite its high price tag it will only serve to bolster Democrats as they remain unified -- has hardly waned.
Asked what he learned from his efforts to sell the proposal at a CNN town hall in Wisconsin earlier this week, Biden didn't hesitate.
"I learned based on the polling data that they want everything that's in the plan," Biden said. "Not a joke. Everything that's in the plan."
As House Democrats prepare to push through the legislation next week, with Senate Democrats set to follow suit in short order, it's a moment that underscores a confluence of factors on politics, policy and quiet, but wide-ranging, behind-the-scenes work that has nearly all gone Biden's way.
It was equal parts an inside- and outside-the-Beltway effort by the White House, aided by congressional Democrats involved early, and often, on both the substance and politics of the proposal. Supporters were boosted by a continuous run of positive public polling -- which White House officials and congressional leaders made a point of regularly putting in front of their members -- all as they sought to capitalize on state and district-level officials and advocacy groups they knew would hold sway on Capitol Hill.
The effort to sell the proposal started early in the process with Biden's transition team regularly consulting with top Democratic lawmakers as they constructed their plan. Key elements, like the emergency expansion of the Child Tax Credit -- a potentially transformative plank of the plan -- came directly from legislation drafted by Democrats that held wide-ranging support in their congressional ranks. There was a recognition, multiple people directly involved said, that the cascading crises meant now was the moment to go big.
By the time Biden took office, his legislative affairs team -- made up of several former Capitol Hill hands who brought with them significant bipartisan credibility from their past staff work -- was already deeply engaged in the process.
That has carried on through the opening weeks of the administration. Since February 5, the team has met with House and Senate leadership multiple times a week, directly with 33 House members and held talks with more than 100 key congressional staffers.
Biden's aides were also ever present as the dozen House committees moved through the process of considering each piece of the legislation, there for technical guidance, and on some of the thorniest issues like the qualification threshold for stimulus payments, even more than that, sources say.
The White House was bolstered by a pervasive posture from Democrats on Capitol Hill: that letting the new President down in his first legislative push was never an option. Even as Democrats have privately grumbled about certain aspects of the bill -- whether it be the overall scope, the eligibility for who receives stimulus checks or the rise in the minimum wage -- most members acknowledge they'll ultimately vote for it.
"Everyone is in the same place," one House Democratic lawmaker told CNN. "There are things we want fixed, but we aren't aggressively opposed. It is the President's first major package, and there are a lot of people who feel like this is his first ask, so for all those factors people are not aggressively threatening not to vote for it."
On top of that, multiple senators and aides point to polling showing the bill with overwhelming popularity even among some Republican voters. They also argue the onslaught of local support from mayors, governors and county governments has made it hard for Republicans to effectively message against it at home.
The GOP opposition
In the Senate, Republican leaders are expected to make the case that the process of writing the bill has been flawed. While the bill went through House committees, it's expected to go straight to the floor in the Senate.
"We understand that, instead of building Senate bills through regular-order deliberation, the Democratic majority instead intends to bypass their own committees and bring the House bills straight onto the Senate calendar and the floor. This would make Senate Democrats' first legislative act of the 117th Congress the outsourcing of their own committee gavels to the House," a group of Republican senators wrote to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In the House, GOP leadership has urged their conference to vote "no" on the package, pointing out a series of issues with abortion-related language and the bill's overall effect on the federal deficit.
But Democrats argue it's easy to defend themselves on legislation that gives people direct checks, access to paid leave, an extension of unemployment insurance and doesn't create new or controversial programs. Much of the bill is bolstering or a continuation of programs that many Republicans already voted for.
Several Democratic sources pointed out that there has been no significant opposition effort mounted to the plan -- no big outside spending to attack the plan, no unified push by GOP campaign or advocacy groups to puncture the growing bubble of momentum.
It stands in sharp contrast to the multi-group, multi-million dollar efforts put together by Democrats as they sought to sink former President Donald Trump's top legislative priority -- the repeal and replacement of Obamacare in 2017.
Multiple GOP officials noted the difference in circumstances: while health care is a highly polarizing issue, poll after poll has made clear that relief for a country struggling through dual economic and public health crises simply isn't.
"It's not like we're looking around and saying, 'Hey, you know what would be a great idea? Attacking stimulus checks to people,' " one senior GOP official told CNN.
Republicans will oppose the bill for a series of reasons, from the topline cost on down, but the combination of a party still finding its way in the wake of Trump's loss, along with a series of proposals that have maintained popularity, has stunted the force of the opposition, the official said.
The fact Trump himself was the genesis for the $1,400 direct payments included in the Democratic proposal is also not lost on Republicans, multiple officials said.
The outside game
As Washington was inundated with the impeachment trial of Biden's predecessor, the White House took pains to make clear they both weren't involved and weren't paying attention. It wasn't entirely true -- Biden was kept abreast of the trial and took to watching highlights each night, two sources said.
But what was true was the blitz Biden's team was deploying outside of the Beltway.
There were 70 local television appearances by senior administration officials and surrogates during a three-week period. An Oval Office meeting between Biden and a bipartisan group of governors and mayors garnered major local coverage.
The White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs held a series of briefings with hundreds of state, local and tribal officials.
All of that has contributed to a firm sense inside the White House that the politics are firmly in their favor, several aides made clear. And not just that supporters would be rewarded politically, but that those who opposed it -- congressional Republicans -- would take a hit.
In a memo to senior White House staff detailing several recent public polls, Mike Donilon, one of Biden's closest advisers, said of the opposition: "Rather than being cost free, this approach has been quite damaging to them."
"Voters are hurting -- and they're looking for leadership that comes forward with plans and solutions," Donilon wrote in the February 16 memo obtained by CNN. "This is not a moment in the country when obstructionism will be rewarded."
It's a position with which Republicans disagree. There has been little hesitation from even moderate Republicans to reject Biden's plan, and the unbending nature of the White House's posture has led many GOP senators to question whether Biden was ever serious about bipartisanship to begin with.
White House officials say he is, and will continue to be, on the lookout for opportunities to negotiate with Republicans. But they see little sign that moving without Republicans on their first legislation out of the gate will somehow poison future negotiations.
The hurdles ahead
In order to build consensus quickly, aides and members say that a decision was made early to write a bill that tracked very closely with Biden's own American Rescue Plan. The thinking from the start was that beginning from the ground up in committees could take too much time and potentially result in unnecessary Democratic infighting in a moment when unity was paramount.
Still, Democratic leadership has worked closely with members in an effort to try and build a coalition of support. Schumer has been having one-on-one conversations with individual members, trying to do the work ahead of time on what they need to support the bill.
"The benefit is Chuck's leadership style is through that flip phone. Chuck is constantly in informal conversations with members, which makes moving a package like this a lot easier," said one Democratic senator who spoke on background to discuss the ongoing caucus discussions about the Covid relief bill.
Success still isn't guaranteed. A handful of moderate members have made it clear privately and in public statements that they can't support legislation that includes raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and Schumer will need every single one of his members to back the bill in order to pass it.
"There are not 50 votes signed on the dotted line," the Democratic senator told CNN on the state of talks right now. "I have still got changes to this package that I want."
The expectation among many Democratic aides and members is that the $15 minimum wage, which is currently the biggest obstacle to getting the bill across the finish line, won't be allowed under the guardrails of reconciliation, a budget process that requires each provision to adhere to a strict set of rules but that could ultimately allow Democrats to pass the legislation on a party-line vote.
"My question is why are we including it and burning up time and promising people they will get a $15 minimum wage increase when we know it is not going to happen," one Democratic member told CNN.
If the Senate's parliamentarian allows the provision to remain in the bill, it could force leadership to have to make tough political decisions about whether now is the time for that intra-party fight.
The perils of the high-wire act of relying solely on Democrats in the Senate was put on display Friday, when Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, announced he would oppose Biden's pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden. If Tanden is unable to secure Republican support -- something Democrats have been exceedingly skeptical of up to this point -- Manchin's no vote would effectively kill the nomination.
It's a dynamic the White House is keenly aware of -- Biden and his team have stayed in close contact with Manchin and his aides in recent weeks.
The dashed hopes of bipartisanship
At various points, the biggest threat to Democratic unity was the desire among some members to fight for bipartisanship. Many rank-and-file members sought to hold onto the idea that there was a middle ground, potentially willing to reshape the ultimate direction of the bill. Biden himself had made clear before he took office that, as a 36-year veteran of the Senate, he would seek bipartisan consensus.
They were encouraged by the President's own outreach directly to Republicans and a high-profile Oval Office meeting where Biden invited 10 Republicans to discuss their own ideas directly with him.
A group of moderate Senate Democrats met frequently with Republican counterparts to try and find a bipartisan compromise, holding out hope in happy hour settings, phone calls and zooms that the relief bill could be crafted in a way to attract GOP support like the previous pandemic relief bills.
But after a group of Senate Republicans came out with a roughly $600 billion proposal that didn't include any direct state and local funding, many Democratic senators immediately torpedoed the proposal, forcing even the moderates to evaluate how hard they ultimately were willing to push for bipartisanship or wait for it, and whether there was too much of a risk of losing votes on the progressive side of the caucus.
At the same time, the message directly from Biden was clear: bipartisanship would be ideal, but it wasn't a necessity, particularly given the bill's perceived popularity outside of Washington.
Still, a bipartisan group of House members took longer to convince. The Problem Solver's Caucus -- a bipartisan group -- and the Blue Dog Coalition -- a group of moderate and conservative Democrats -- pushed separately behind the scenes for leadership and the White House to separate out vaccine funding from the larger coronavirus package as a way to move the funding faster and to provide a way for at least part of the relief bill to be bipartisan.
Other moderate Democrats agreed. The argument was that the White House could move the package in two steps. But in conversations with Biden's team, including chief of staff Ron Klain, the reality of the situation began to come into focus. Separating out the bills could take time and potentially take the pressure off Republicans to back the larger package altogether.
Democratic leaders and the White House made it clear: the package was going to stay together and so did Democrats.