White House press secretary Jen Psaki had been on the job for a day when she was asked how on Earth President Joe Biden expected to get his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package through Congress on a bipartisan basis. Psaki decided to lay the question at the feet of Senate Republicans, explaining just what the mammoth price tag would buy and asking the GOP through the media: "'What do you want to cut?'"
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and nine other Republican senators provided the answer Sunday: about two-thirds if they had their way. That includes aid to states, the length and monthly amount provided in an expanded unemployment package, and state and local funds, as well as a refusal to raise the federal minimum wage.
Soon after their offer was made public, Biden invited the group to the White House to hear them out on Monday afternoon — but, as Psaki made it clear that morning, the meeting was not a negotiation.
The 10 Republicans who signed onto this counteroffer represent the votes needed to get past the filibuster on the Senate floor, lending their proposal a certain political credibility. Democrats are considering using a trick known as "reconciliation" to pass the stimulus, instead, to get around GOP roadblocks, and pundits and conservatives were quick to declare Biden's bipartisanship dead on arrival. On the other hand, as the negotiators have insinuated, getting support from this group would be a huge political win for Biden and his approach to politics.
But that's not the end of the story, nor can it be. In slashing the provisions in Biden's pitch, the 10 senators potentially scuttle the odds of all 50 Senate Democrats' signing on, let alone the slim majority of Democrats in the House.
The only thing they want, it seems, is less.
Likewise, the idea that Congress would quickly move to pass other parts of Biden's proposal if this round of stimulus isn't enough, as some Republicans, like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, have suggested, was proved a lie during the nine months between bills last year. Millions of Americans can't afford to be left in the lurch like that yet again.
Making matters all the more frustrating is that the senators aren't demanding any new or alternative programs. None of them are asking for increased funding for any particular recipient compared to the Biden plan, according to a summary published by Politico. The only thing they want, it seems, is less.
$150 billion less for schools to reopen safely. $350 billion less to the states in emergency funding. $100 less for the unemployed each month. Less certainty for people still struggling to find work between June and September. Just ... less, all because the price tag is high on paper.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, argued that when he and his fellow Republicans want to cut back Biden's package, it's really about helping the truly deserving and in the long run.
"We really want to help those who need it the most," Portman said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "And at a time of unprecedented deficits and debts — and a debt, as the percentage of the economy, is as high as it's been in our nation's history since World War II — we need to be sure this is targeted."
OK, first of all, we have to acknowledge the triumphant return of Republican complaints about debts and deficits after they were dormant for years as former President Donald Trump racked up both. Welcome back. I'm already tired of you.
Second, bipartisanship is a great goal in theory; bringing the parties together to help the American people plays well in the stands. But imagine being almost a year into a pandemic and saying, "Actually, maybe you should consider doing less." Imagine thinking, "You know, the government really has done too much for the American people this year. Maybe we should back off."
This may wind up being the maximalist position from these Republicans; we may see them willing to meet Biden halfway, or more, as talks continue. But this isn't exactly the time for a protracted back and forth.
Biden seems to agree. For now, the White House is holding tight to the original proposal, saying in a statement that "the American Rescue Plan was carefully designed to meet the stakes of this moment, and any changes in it cannot leave the nation short of its pressing needs."
And while Collins spoke for all 10 senators at a media availability afterward, where she said there had been a "good exchange of views," the group doesn't have to stick together for a bipartisan bill to pass. While Biden "is hopeful the Rescue Plan can pass with bipartisan support, a reconciliation package is a path to achieve that end," the White House's statement said, all but subtweeting the recently departed lawmakers.
The message: Any — or all of them! — could easily vote for the final package if they want to after suggesting more provisions to make the funding more efficient, even if it's moved forward with reconciliation. But bipartisanship doesn't have to mean going small.
Biden invited the moderates to the White House. He listened to their pitch. The scope of the coronavirus bill now depends on whether the Republicans sitting within him in the Oval Office did the same.