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The problem with the Republicans' 'offer' on a COVID relief package

Republicans apparently expect people to believe legislation should be assessed, not on its merits, but in its capacity to make the GOP minority happy.
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Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, left, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington on Jan. 15, 2020.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

As Democratic officials move forward with an ambitious COVID relief package, Senate Republicans have focused on two principal concerns. The first is that it would hurt their feelings if the Democratic majority passed a bill without them -- a complaint that no one should take seriously for all sorts of reasons.

But the second GOP talking point is that the existing proposal, presented weeks ago by President Joe Biden's White House, would do too much to help the economy and struggling Americans. What kind of proposal do Republicans have in mind? Over the weekend, their vision came into sharper focus.

The Republicans' proposed package is much smaller than Biden's $1.9 trillion proposal, and includes $160 billion for vaccines, $4 billion for health and substance abuse services, the continuation of current unemployment aid and unspecified "targeted" economic assistance and help for schools.

All told, the GOP blueprint would carry a roughly $600 billion price tag, which is less than a third of what the White House has said is necessary to deliver meaningful economic results. That said, the Republicans' proposal, presented to the White House in a written letter issued on Saturday, was signed by 10 GOP senators, which is a notable number: to overcome a Republican filibuster, a proposal would need at least 10 members of the Senate minority to vote for it. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who's helped spearhead this effort, has apparently lined up the 10 votes.

Alternatively, of course, Democrats could simply take advantage of the budget reconciliation process, pass their own bill, and move on to the next policy priority.

But Republicans hope to prevent such an outcome with their counter-offer that's difficult to take seriously. As a Washington Post analysis noted, this GOP contingent effectively took Biden's plan, scrapped aid to state and cities, eliminated the minimum wage increase, slashed the value of direct-aid checks, limited the number of middle-class households that could receive direct-aid checks, and cut supplemental unemployment benefits.

And why in the world would Democrats scrap their superior bill, on purpose, which they can pass on their own, to instead embrace a meager Republican alternative? Because, some GOP senators said yesterday, it would signify "bipartisanship" and "unity."

The game is insulting in its inanity: Republicans apparently expect people to believe legislation should be assessed, not on its merits, but in its capacity to make the GOP minority happy. Biden can sign a good bill or a bipartisan one, and Republicans want the new president to prioritize the latter over the former.

As foolish as this sounds, the 10 senators who presented the pitch requested a meeting with the president to discuss the matter in more detail. Late yesterday, the White House agreed to the meeting, which could happen as early as today.

What's less clear is what, exactly, this meeting is intended to do. Is the goal to persuade these Republicans to endorse the more ambitious bill? Does the president intend to defend use of the reconciliation process? Is there a plan to strike some kind of split-the-difference compromise between the two proposals?

For now, the answers are far from clear. At face value, it appears a group of senators requested time with the president, and Biden has agreed to hear them out. The next step remains uncertain.

In the meantime, on Capitol Hill, congressional Democrats are planning to approve reconciliation resolutions as early as this week, which would provide them with the legislative foundation needed to pass any COVID relief bill they want, whether Republicans like it or not.