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Image: Senate Meets To Vote On Cloture For NDAA
The Capitol on Dec. 11, 2020, in Washington.Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images

As a relief package passes, there are key lessons to be learned

There's certainly a temptation to feel some optimism after a breakthrough, bipartisan compromise. But those hopes are tempered by the relevant details.

It wasn't easy, and Republican intransigence led to a process that took several months longer than it should have, but Congress last night finally approved an economic relief package. As NBC News reported overnight:

Congress overwhelmingly voted Monday to pass a massive Covid-19 relief package and government funding bill, its second effort this year to bring much-needed aid to Americans struggling during the pandemic. The outcome had been all but assured after congressional leaders struck a deal late Sunday on a nearly $900 billion package, which includes a new round of stimulus checks, an extension of unemployment benefits and more money for vaccines and education.

As of this morning, Donald Trump has not yet signed the package into law, but that did not spark a shutdown: Congress also approved another week-long stopgap measure to continue funding the government.

The massive legislation, some of the details of which we discussed yesterday, ended up being nearly 5,600 pages, and according to an Associated Press report, the Senate Historical Office believes it's the longest bill ever approved in Congress' history.

It simply wasn't realistic to think lawmakers would have an opportunity to read the legislation yesterday, but it nevertheless cleared both chambers with relative ease: in the House, the vote was 359 to 53 (50 of the 53 were Republican members), while in the Senate, the final tally was 92 to 6 (each of the "no" votes came from GOP senators).

As the dust settles and lawmakers head home for the rest of the week, it's hard to know whether to feel satisfaction with the result. On the one hand, it's obviously a good thing that many families and businesses that need a lifeline will soon get one. On the other hand, the aid package is too small, incomplete, late, and temporary.

The editorial board of the Washington Post described the successful negotiations as a sign that the nation's political system is still capable of working, adding that the relief bill is "an indication that lawmakers are still capable of shaking hands on big legislation when national prosperity is at stake."

Maybe. There's certainly a temptation to feel a degree of optimism after Democrats and Republicans, House members and senators, sit down, make concessions, and reach a major compromise in the midst of a national crisis. Breakthrough moments like these have been in short supply in recent years, so I can appreciate why the relief package has become the source of hope.

But those hopes are tempered by several relevant details. For one thing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seemed entirely comfortable for months allowing the process to collapse, and only changed his mind when he came to believe failure might hurt his party's U.S. Senate candidates in Georgia.

National prosperity was on the line, but that wasn't a motivation for the Senate Republicans' leader. Partisan electoral considerations and a desire to maintain power were McConnell's principal concerns.

What's more, the process shed light on some unnerving GOP policy priorities. As Jennifer Rubin explained:

The bill, which, according to The Post, contains "aid to millions of struggling households through stimulus checks, enhanced federal unemployment benefits and money for small businesses, schools and child care, as well as for vaccine distribution ... [and] also repurposes $429 billion in unused funds provided by the Cares Act for emergency lending programs run by the Federal Reserve," reflects a number of the Democrats' priorities. Those include extended unemployment support; direct cash payments (although half the amount of the previous $1,200 under the Cares Act); substantial food aid ($13 billion in SNAP benefits plus additional funding for food banks and nutrition programs for seniors, and to ensure that college students have access to SNAP); child-care support; and rental assistance. Remember, Republicans wanted none of this.

And finally, there's the near future to consider. The lifelines approved last night will expire in the spring, and Democrats are already discussing ways to act in the new year, extending the national bridge to the end of the pandemic crisis. There's a very real likelihood that congressional Republicans will prefer to leave an incomplete bridge, preferring instead to hand Joe Biden an early defeat and undermine the economy once Donald Trump is out of office.

That may sound outlandish, of course, but those who remember Barack Obama's first term, and the eagerness with which McConnell & Co. took steps to cut him off at the knees, it's hard not to expect a sequel.