With Covid-19 killing thousands of people each day in the U.S. and the economy still mired in deep recession, progressives are calling on President Joe Biden and the Democrat-controlled Congress to abandon futile outreach to the GOP and push ahead with a robust relief package after a pair of so-called "moderate" Republican senators voiced skepticism Wednesday about passing another major spending bill.
Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), members of a bipartisan group of lawmakers calling itself the Common Sense Coalition, indicated shortly after Biden's inauguration Wednesday that they would have difficulty supporting relief legislation on the scale of the $1.9 trillion plan the president unveiled last week—a proposal progressives criticized as inadequate.
"Who cares what Romney thinks. Ultimately the effectiveness of the Biden admin will be determined by how often they ignore what Republicans have to say and jam stuff through reconciliation."
—James Medlock, policy analyst
Romney characterized Biden's opening offer as "not well-timed" given that Congress "passed a $900 billion-plus package" last month. Some economists argue that between $3 trillion and $4.5 trillion in spending will be necessary in the short-term to bring the U.S. out of recession and pave the way for a speedy recovery.
"Let's give that some time to be able to influence the economy," Romney said of the December relief measure.
Murkowski echoed Romney's concern, complaining that "the ink is just barely dry on the $900 billion." Biden's relief proposal—which includes $1,400 direct payments, a boost to unemployment benefits, and other key measures—would require "a fair amount of of debate and consideration," said the Alaska Republican.
Given that Biden would likely need the backing of both Romney and Murkowski—as well as other Republicans—to achieve his hope of passing a relief bill with bipartisan support, progressives said the two senators' comments further bolster the case for ignoring the austerity-obsessed GOP and using unified Democratic control of government to swiftly pass an ambitious package.
"Who cares what Romney thinks," tweeted policy analyst James Medlock. "Ultimately the effectiveness of the Biden admin[istration] will be determined by how often they ignore what Republicans have to say and jam stuff through reconciliation."
Medlock was referring to the expedited, filibuster-proof process that allows passage of certain kinds of legislation with a simple majority rather than the usual 60 votes—a threshold that would require the support of at least 10 Republican senators.
Biden has not explicitly endorsed passing coronavirus relief through reconciliation if Republicans obstruct his agenda. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during the new administration's first press briefing Wednesday that while the president's "clear preference is to move forward with a bipartisan bill," Biden is "not going to take tools off the table for how the House and Senate can get this done."
With the reconciliation process a possibility, another—and, according to some progressives, much better—option is to quickly eliminate the legislative filibuster, a move that would allow passage of legislation without any Republican support.
Democrats control the Senate by the narrowest possible margin, meaning they would need the backing of the entire caucus plus a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Kamala Harris to pass legislation in the absence of the filibuster, which Democrats can kill with a simple majority vote.
"A Republican minority shouldn't be allowed to hold the nation's economic recovery and public health hostage," progressive organizer Ilya Sheyman said, urging Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to use one of the two tools at his disposal to pass a major relief bill.
Amid growing GOP hostility to additional coronavirus relief spending, Biden's economic advisers are expected to meet with the Common Sense Coalition in the coming days, continuing outreach to Republicans and conservative Democrats—such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—that began before the inauguration.
"We can do 1,000 straight days of this song and dance or we can just zoom ahead and enjoy a glorious, filibuster-free existence," tweeted Ryan Kearney of the LGBTQ Victory Fund. "Your choice!"
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said Wednesday that while he has "no problem with reaching out to Republicans" and "would prefer to do it that way," he has no intention of wasting precious time trying to bring intransigent GOP lawmakers onboard.
"If we hear very early on that Republicans do not want to act in a way that meets the needs of working people in this country or the middle class, sorry, we're gonna do it alone," the Vermont senator said in an appearance on ABC.
As progressive Democrats and advocacy groups demand quick action, the timeline for movement of a coronavirus relief package remains unclear. Punchbowl News reported Wednesday morning that "Democrats do not expect to be able to send Biden a Covid relief bill until early March," when emergency unemployment benefits are set to expire for millions of Americans.
Progressives made clear that waiting until March to pass a relief bill would be unacceptable, given the enormity of the public health and economic emergencies that are ravaging the country.
"We urge the President to continue to act swiftly and boldly to address the multiple crises our nation faces," Rahna Epting, executive director of advocacy group MoveOn, said in a statement late Wednesday. "People's lives depend on it. We cannot allow Washington gridlock or Republican obstruction to stand in the way of the urgent needs of the nation."
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, issued a similar call to action, demanding that the Biden administration and Democratic Congress work toward "the swift passage of a comprehensive and bold relief package that meets the scale of this crisis."
"We have no time to waste," said Jayapal.