Bipartisanship is nice, but Joe Biden’s first job is to come to the aid of suffering Americans

If Congress could cut taxes by $2 trillion to put a smile on the faces of billionaires, why can’t it find $1.9 trillion to help struggling families buy groceries during the pandemic?

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President Joe Biden meets Republican lawmakers to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House Monday.

Evan Vucci/AP

For people who care about average Americans, the arithmetic doesn’t add up.

In 2017, nine U.S. senators were among those who cheerfully voted for tax cuts geared toward the wealthiest people. Those tax cuts are expected to cost $2 trillion over a decade.

But now that President Joe Biden is proposing to spend a tad less — $1.9 trillion — to address a once-in-a-century pandemic disaster, the message from those same nine senators, joined by a 10th senator who wasn’t in office in 2017, is: Not so fast.

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If the federal government could cut taxes by $2 trillion to put a smile on the faces of people with private jets and multiple homes, why can’t it now find $1.9 trillion to help struggling families buy groceries during a pandemic? Why can’t it protect families from being evicted? Why can’t it increase federal jobless benefits to $400 a week and extend them through September, rather than just June, as the Republicans would prefer?

At this critical time, for that matter, why can’t Washington provide $170 billion to schools, colleges and universities to help them reopen safely or improve remote learning?

Why shouldn’t the federal government find the money for a host of other measures that Biden is proposing to get our nation through the COVID-19 pandemic? And why shouldn’t it send$350 million in direct relief to floundering state and local governments to keep basic services going and avoid more layoffs?

The Republican Party, once so eager to soften the blows of life for billionaires, wants nothing to do with any of that.

Room for negotiation

On Monday, Biden met with the 10 senators for “an exchange of ideas,” which was the adult thing to do. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of the 10 senators pushing for the smaller package, afterward called the meeting “productive” and said the participants agreed to “follow up and talk further.” There is room for movement in the White House plan. But at bottom, the Republicans insist they will agree to spend only a third of what Biden believes is necessary. And that won’t be close to enough for a nation in pain on so many fronts.

If history is a guide, a further danger is that the Biden administration will get so bogged down in negotiations, trying hard to meet the president’s desire for a bipartisan solution, that many more weeks or even months could roll by before the federal relief is sent out, diminishing its effectiveness.

After the 2008 financial crisis, Democrats now believe, they wasted far too much time negotiating for Republican support and ultimately settled for a stimulus bill that was woefully less than needed. They also believe they lost valuable time when trying to reach a bipartisan consensus on the Affordable Care Act, only to see every Republican walk away from the final bill.

Democrats and the Biden administration are right to play it hard and tough now. The fact that only 10 Republican senators are publicly willing to back even their much smaller proposed pandemic relief bill suggests that the Democrats just might have to go this one alone.

Danger is doing too little

Is Biden’s plan affordable?

To put that $1.9 trillion in context, consider that the combined wealth of America’s billionaires rose by $1.1 trillion in the first year of the pandemic. That alone amounts to more than half the money needed to fund Biden’s plan. And many economists and business leaders warn that there is a greater danger in doing less than needed than in doing too much.

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Biden can’t afford not to get his plan through Congress. At a time when so many Americans are disillusioned by the failures of government, it’s important that he shows how a well-run administration can improve the lives of people across the country.

Biden also surely understands, having served in the Obama administration, that more than a few powerful Republican leaders, starting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, want nothing more than to see him fail.

Republicans, if they wish, could promise not to filibuster other important Biden initiatives in exchange for tweaks to Biden’s pandemic relief plan. They could also make it clear that their own proposal is just an opening offer — and that they are prepared to meet Biden more than halfway.

But they’re doing nothing of the sort. They are, on the contrary, insisting that Biden severely chop down his own proposal to demonstrate his fidelity to his pledge for unity.

What “unity” means

In his first inaugural address, Biden did indeed passionately call for Americans to find more common ground. But if Republicans on Capitol Hill think that the president’s call for unity means they can largely dictate terms of legislation to a House, Senate and White House controlled by Democrats, they’re kidding themselves.

Not a chance. Not when so many Americans are up against it.

Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have introduced a budget resolution that could be passed by a simple majority vote. If every Democrat in the Senate supported the resolution, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as a tie breaker, there would be no need for Republican support.

Republicans in 2017 used just this process, called budget reconciliation, to ram through their $2 trillion tax gift for the rich.

Republicans now can either get serious about negotiations or stand aside, having signaled their decision to be the “party of no” for yet another four years.

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