Joe Biden’s bid to inject the US economy with a massive fiscal stimulus is set for a turbulent landing in the Senate this week, as lawmakers haggle over a $1.9tn Covid relief package that stands to make or break his budding presidency.
Having failed to secure any support from Republican lawmakers, the White House is focused on maintaining Democratic party unity, since even a single defection from within their ranks in the upper chamber of Congress could sink the bill’s chances.
After gathering on Monday with a smaller group of moderate lawmakers who are wary of the bill’s high pricetag and most likely to create last-minute obstacles, Biden on Tuesday tuned in to a private lunch meeting with all Senate Democrats to plead for their support.
The formal debate on the stimulus package in the Senate is due to begin as early as Wednesday, and could carry on for several days before a final vote.
“[Biden and his team] are clearly using every leverage and every muscle they have at their disposal to get this done,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to Biden’s presidential campaign. “It’s going to pass or fail by a thin margin either way.”
The stimulus package was approved early on Saturday by a slim majority in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, but in the Senate the numbers are even tighter. There is a 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats, with Biden’s party only holding the edge because US vice-president Kamala Harris casts any tiebreaking votes.
Some centrist Democrats have been pushing to slim down the legislation by limiting emergency unemployment benefits and the eligibility for $1,400-a-person direct payments, while others have pushed changes to funding for state and local governments to divert more money into broadband access.
Some of those efforts have unnerved the left flank of the party: progressive lawmakers are now looking for their own changes, such as automatic triggers to guarantee support for families unless certain economic milestones are met.
The push for revisions has amplified the challenge for Biden, especially since the legislation would have to return to the House for a new vote if there are any changes made in the Senate. But lawmakers involved in the talks say he is shying away from heavy-handed interference, preferring to let Democratic senators forge their own compromise.
“Joe’s put in a hard position, because you know he’s got people beating on him all over the board,” Joe Manchin, the moderate West Virginia Democratic senator, told reporters on Tuesday, adding that the president was “inclined to let the process work”.
The stakes for Biden are huge. Political analysts say the success or failure of his early days in office hinges on whether the stimulus package secures a green light on Capitol Hill and can be enacted by the mid-March deadline set by the White House.
“If the bill passes, if Covid is under control and if the economy booms, then Biden has a chance to be only the fourth president in a century who did well in the midterms following his election,” said Bob Shrum, director of the USC Center for the Political Future, noting that Franklin D Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and George W Bush had also pulled off such a feat.
Biden’s campaign to secure a $1.9tn stimulus package has been subject to several twists. He initially sought bipartisan support for the legislation to chime with his calls for greater unity in Washington, but it was clear Republicans would only accept a far smaller deal.
Last month the White House had to deflect Democratic friendly fire from Larry Summers, Barack Obama’s former economic adviser, who warned that the plan risked creating unhealthy “inflationary pressures” in the US economy.
Biden was also dealt a blow last week when the Senate parliamentarian, who advises on procedure in the upper chamber, said a minimum wage increase — one of his top economic priorities — could not be included in the package.
But the president’s approval ratings have remained steady, and at a level that is much higher than his predecessor Donald Trump’s both when he started and left office. That has resulted in confidence in the White House that the coalition who elected him is holding up well.
While Republicans are attacking the legislation on the grounds that it will have “long-term adverse consequences”, Biden is betting that their criticism will ring hollow. Polls have shown that the $1.9tn package is backed by most Americans, making it hard for even the most conservative Democrats to oppose it, which should help Biden clear the final hurdles.
“This is the moment everyone looks to see if you can pass big legislation and this is the one he’s putting everything on right now,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of political history at Princeton University. “If he can accomplish [it] I think it will help him make the argument that he was elected to solve the crisis we’re in, and he has already delivered.”
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