We’re only two weeks in, and Joe Biden’s presidency finds itself at a hinge moment. We will learn most of what we need to know about his Oval Office leadership when we see which path he takes.
The first path is bipartisanship. Right now, the news out of Washington suggests Biden will work with 10 Republican senators and make some compromises on his coronavirus relief bill to get them on board. Those compromises would likely involve reducing the overall amount of money to be spent, down from Biden’s $1.9 trillion ask, in part by putting a ceiling on the income levels of the Americans who will receive a new $1,400 stimulus check.
If that were to happen, the bill could receive the 60 votes needed to avoid a Senate filibuster and become law under Biden’s signature (assuming the Democratic-led House agrees).
The second path is a show of force. Just because news stories on Wednesday say Biden is willing to make a deal on income levels doesn’t mean it will happen. The GOP senators could balk at something, or Biden could make a last-minute poison-pill move that would compel them to walk away.
In that case, Biden could reject all Republican involvement and insist on the $1.9 trillion as originally proposed. Then what?
He could either play an old Washington trick or go totally revolutionary. For the trick, he’d need the help of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to declare the package a “reconciliation bill,” which under Senate rules can’t be stopped by filibuster and could therefore pass by 51 votes.
That would be 50 Democratic senators in favor, and 50 Republicans against — with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie in her constitutional role as president of the Senate.
And if that couldn’t work — and it shouldn’t, because this relief package is a reconciliation bill the way I am Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — Biden could then invoke the so-called nuclear option and demand that Democratic senators change the rules of the body to abolish the filibuster altogether.
The filibuster’s requirement of a three-fifths majority to allow a bill to come to a vote on the floor of the Senate has been breached twice in the past decade — first, by Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in 2013 in the case of judicial nominations below the Supreme Court, then in 2017 by then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the case of Supreme Court nominations.
Biden would need it to be done away with entirely. And he may not be able to make that happen. Two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — both indicate they won’t support the effort to abolish the filibuster. That would leave Schumer with only 48 votes in favor, and the rule couldn’t be changed.
But what if those two had to stand against the entire Democratic Party and the new Democratic president in pursuit of a coronavirus relief bill? That kind of pressure could make almost anyone budge, as could the new Quinnipiac poll showing colossal popular approval of the package: 68 percent in favor and only 24 percent opposed.
The thing is, Manchin doesn’t have the same incentives as other Democrats. He represents West Virginia, which former President Donald Trump won in November by 39 points. He says he wants the bill to feature income limits. And he says he opposes the bill featuring a $15 federal minimum wage.
Manchin’s objection is key here. Biden would be staking his first legislative battle on his ability to steamroll the guy whose very conservative state gave Trump his largest margin in 2020. That’s a high-stakes gamble.
Which is why Biden’s best, and indeed his most Machiavellian, play is to go bipartisan — even if it means giving up his minimum-wage proposal, which doesn’t belong in a relief bill anyway.
First, Biden would be able to claim he had gotten two-party buy-in on a major piece of legislation for the first time since the Iraq War and made good on his campaign promise that he could bring people together.
Second, he’d have a big legislative victory in his pocket.
Finally, he would deepen and exacerbate the civil war in the Republican Party, as the Trump wing would launch an all-out war with the “RINO squishes” who decided to “cave” to Biden. He could sit eating popcorn as the GOP tore itself to shreds even more ruinously than it has been over the past few months.
What Democrat could resist such a spectacle?
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