Republicans are whining as Democrats prepare to play hardball
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine (screengrab)

President Joe Biden has gone out of his way to repeatedly emphasize that he wants to push forward with his governing agenda in a unifying and bipartisan way, if at all possible. But has also suggested that he's not going to let the Republican Party obstruct him from following through on campaign promises and commitments, as so often happened when he was vice president.

And now, as it becomes increasingly likely that Congress will move forward on Biden's first big legislative agenda item — a COVID relief bill — by using a strategy that could succeed with only Democratic votes, Republicans are not happy.

"It would be like declaring war around here. And you've got impeachment on top of it," one anonymous Republican senator told HuffPost on Thursday. "This is not a good way to start off."

(It's noteworthy, though, that impeachment was a bipartisan endeavor, with 10 Republican members of Congress voting for the article earlier in the month. Republicans had frequently criticized the first impeachment for not securing any GOP votes.)

The anger is coming from the prospect that Democrats might pass Biden's $1.9 trillion recovery bill through the House and Senate through a process called budget reconciliation. This process allows for bills that are budgetary in nature — though what this means is somewhat debatable — to pass the Senate once a year with only 51 votes, rather than 60.

A bipartisan group of sixteen senators has been negotiating over the package, but even Republicans who might be seen as open to working with Democrats balked at the large price tag of Biden's proposal. That suggests they would only be open to passing a bill with significantly less spending in it, far below what Biden has argued the country needs.

"I don't think there's a single Republican who would vote for the $1.9 trillion bill," said Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, according to Politico.

Yet even if the bipartisan group agreed on some final bill, that wouldn't settle the matter. There are only eight Republicans in the group, and at least 10 would be needed to pass a bill through the ordinary procedures.

Some Democrats have suggested they're not interested in watering down their proposals to get Republican support if there are other ways to pass the legislation. In a recent interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said:

Our north star has to be the legislation itself. It has to be big and bold and strong. If Republicans work with us to get good, strong legislation, yes. ... Look at [2009] where we spent a year and a half trying to get something good done, ACA, Obamacare, and we didn't do all the other things that had to be done. We will not repeat that mistake. We will not repeat that mistake.

Schumer also said reconciliation was on the table:

Our hope is, now, we have tools that we can use; reconciliation. We can get a lot of the COVID bill done with reconciliation. And that's something we certainly will use if they try to block this immediate COVID bill. We can even use reconciliation for a much broader proposal. Biden's bill, Build Back Better, which obviously would be modified and changed. So we have some tools we can use right now and will not hesitate to use them if Republicans continue to just block. As for other issues, what we're going to do is – we are united in the view we need to bring change. We are united in the view McConnell is not going to dictate what this Senate does.

While using reconciliation would be an assertive, bold move to avoid needing any Republican votes, there's nothing norm-breaking or destabilizing about it. Republicans used the process twice in 2017. First, they pushed a failed attempt to roll back Obama, and second, they passed tax cuts. In both cases, the Republicans began on the assumption that they'd be using reconciliation. They didn't even consider trying to get Democratic votes for their policies. They probably would have done it again if they had kept control of the House after 2018.

But now that Democrats are prepared to use reconciliation to do what they want — respond to a crisis — Republicans are indignant.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins asked Biden to put the "brakes" on talk of reconciliation on Thursday, Politico reported. Ohio Republican Rob Portman reportedly said Democrats were "blowing it" by considering reconciliation.

"I think they felt a little bit betrayed by the representations that they were getting about the Democrats' intentions," Senate Minority Whip John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, told Politico of the group's feelings. "And then having their leadership and the White House short-circuiting that and doing it all through reconciliation."

Republicans might understandably wonder what was the point of all the outreach if the Democrats were just going to proceed with reconciliation. But Democrats haven't hidden their intentions and never took that option off the table.

And while many Republicans are arguing that they don't think much more stimulus spending is needed after Congress passed a $900 billion bill at the end of 2020, Democrats were always clear they didn't think that was enough. Biden called that bill a "down payment." Democrats had initially passed a $3 trillion bill through the House in May, which Republicans refused to even bring up for a vote in the Senate. Biden's new proposal would bring the total of the new bill and the December legislation close to Democrats' initial aims. And it was on the back of those proposals that Democrats won control of the White House and the Senate while keeping control of the House. It's their turn to govern, so they're going to do it their way.