The most significant thing that President Joe Biden said in his first prime-time address, on Thursday, March 11, was that in recent years, “We lost faith in whether our government and our democracy can deliver on really hard things for the American people.” It was now up to the slim, seemingly unassuming Biden, after decades of seeking the Oval Office, to show that America is governable.
Biden not only has to restore faith in federal programs, but rescue the country from the deadly virus that has killed more than a half-million Americans in a year. A few hours before his speech, Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, one of the most ambitious domestic-policy legislation ever passed.
The new law is a collection of programs to not only accelerate the end of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on society and the economy, but also begin restoring equity to who gets helped by federal legislation, for a long time tilted toward the wealthy. The new law passed the evenly divided Senate by one vote, with Republicans unanimously opposed. The House passed it by a narrow margin with Republicans unanimously opposed. (The Democrats, having lost House seats in the 2020 elections, dominate the “lower chamber” by only eight votes.)
The sprawling bill granted direct payments of up to $1,400 to most households; raised benefits for the unemployed; and expanded aid for children, for state and local governments, for schools so that children could return to classrooms and their parents to work, and for small businesses (particularly restaurants) hurt by the pandemic. The bill also contains a major expansion of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, once the source of a dependable political ruckus. The bill also included substantial increases in aid for the poor and money for hospitals and health-care workers. This rich stew had enough ingredients to please progressives while, despite its estimated $1.9 trillion price tag, it wasn’t too enormous for moderate Democrats to swallow.
A provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour was dropped because of a parliamentary ruling. In the Senate the final vote was held up for over ten hours while the Democratic leadership worked to overcome an objection by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a poor state that Donald Trump easily carried twice.
Manchin, a bear of a man, is clearly enjoying the season in the sun which the evenly divided Senate affords him. A Democratic Senate aide says, “He’s smart in taking advantage of his position but he’s not as smart as he thinks he is.”
The big question after Congress passed the Rescue Plan Act on March 10 was what this augured for the future. A number of observers prematurely declared the end of Reaganism, the view, swept into fashion in 1980, that government programs can do no good.
But it will require more than one bill to establish that such a dramatic change has occurred, and thoughtful Democrats know that the pandemic-inspired rescue plan may well turn out to have been the easiest piece of major legislation for them to pass in the two years before the 2022 midterm elections, when the president’s party often loses votes and the opposition party gains control of one or both chambers.
Virtually all of the other issues on Biden’s, and most Democrats’ list – building up America’s decrepit infrastructure, getting serious about climate change, immigration, and overcoming state-level Republican efforts to make it harder for minorities to vote – contain issues that could incite internal party controversy at a time when they can’t afford to lose any votes. (If a Senate roll call ends in a tie, Vice President Kamala Harris can vote to break it.)
Moreover, the special “reconciliation” rule, under which the Rescue Act was passed, requires just a majority (51 votes) – as opposed to the 60 required for most legislation because a filibuster is routinely threatened – and can only be utilized for bills involving budgetary matters. This is why many Democrats think that the filibuster must be repealed, made more difficult to use, or narrowed in the times it can be used.
A practice that was first employed by southern senators to block civil-rights legislation, the filibuster gradually came into widespread use, to the point whereby most legislation needs 60 votes to succeed. Thus, a bill that has majority support can be sunk by 41 senators.
Before the 2020 election, when Republicans controlled the Senate, then-majority leader Mitch McConnell frequently used the threat of a filibuster to bury legislation that came from the Democratic-controlled House. The prospect that McConnell can still block most Democrat proposals is why so many of the president’s party – delighted at the prospect, which they are aware could be short-lived, of writing long-sought legislation and of fulfilling Biden’s campaign promises – want to change the filibuster or get rid of it altogether.
Biden is not so naive as to believe that McConnell will change his political spots, but his calls for bipartisanship may set the Republicans up for blame for opposing them. Biden is aware that the Republicans aren’t interested in helping the administration win on big issues, and from experience he knows that there is no point in getting dragged into long negotiations that go nowhere. The current effort by Biden, Harris, and their spouses to sell the Rescue Act to the public, though it has already been passed, is a way to try to make passage of other administration bills more likely by making the concept of government programs more acceptable.
Since changing Senate rules requires 67 votes, doing anything serious about the filibuster presents a daunting challenge. Democrats talk of building pressure on Republicans to change the filibuster rule by emphasizing their opposition to popular administration bills. But this may turn out to be just a theory: the Rescue Act is wildly popular with the public, receiving as much as 75% support, yet no Republican supported it. Republicans meanwhile are trying to lower it in the public’s esteem by attacking its details.
Thus, before a transformation of American politics can be proclaimed, or to convince more people that US government works, a battle still must be fought over a bill that has only just gone on the books.
Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.