Democrats Can Settle for Less Covid Aid Now or Fight Later

Negotiations started on Tuesday — finally — on the next congressional pandemic-relief and economic-stimulus bill. Meanwhile, the Defense Authorization bill is under consideration in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Which means that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats will have two big choices to make. In both cases, Democrats have to figure out their endgame in order to know how to play current negotiations and legislative strategies. 

The first one is: Are Democrats willing to walk away from the table on the relief and stimulus bill? Democrats passed a $3 trillion bill in May. They want to fund medical and scientific efforts against the virus, extend expanded unemployment insurance, have another round of direct payments to individuals, help revenue-starved state and local governments including public schools, and more. They probably can get some of that, but are unlikely to get Senate Republicans to agree on anything close to all they think is necessary. 

Democrats surely believe that what they’re asking for is not only good for Democratic constituencies, but good for the overall economy. They believe that it’s in President Donald Trump’s interest to go big on relief and stimulus — and that if Republicans really refuse to deal, and if the bill falls apart, it will hurt the economy and help their presumptive presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. But so far, Democrats have chosen immediate help to their constituents over what they see as their electoral interests.

In March, Democrats were able to get a lot of what they wanted in the three pandemic response bills that Congress passed and Trump signed. At least so far, it appears that they won’t get as much in the next round. The current Republican proposals include a lot of things that Democrats oppose — tax cuts that Trump is pushing, and legal protections for employers that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is demanding. If those measures are as far as Republicans are willing to go, then Democrats will have an easy choice. But assuming that Republicans are willing to agree on provisions that Democrats would find better than the status quo, the decision will be harder. Should they give their constituents whatever crumbs are available, or walk away and fight it out in the November elections?

There’s no obvious correct answer. Obstruction for the sake of obstruction would be irresponsible, but that’s not what House Democrats have been doing. Nor have they particularly packed their bill with partisan goodies; the bulk of the funding is for direct assistance to individuals and governments, none of which is targeted specifically to states with Democratic majorities. The coronavirus has spread across the nation since the last major bill passed in March, so states with Republican governing majorities such as Florida, Arizona and Texas are just as eager for government help as blue New York and New Jersey were back then. Still, it’s not unethical for Democrats to be aware that if they can’t get close to what they want and the bill falls apart, it would probably help Biden and Democratic candidates in November. 

The second question: To what extent are Democrats willing to fight to use must-past bills as a method to restrain the Trump administration? House Democrats are convinced, and rightly so, that the administration is acting lawlessly in several ways. Deploying federal agents to quell protests in Portland, Oregon and other cities; transferring funds appropriated for other purposes to build the president’s border wall; refusing to cooperate with normal congressional oversight. And then there are a number of policy areas, from immigration to the environment to foreign policy, in which House Democrats strongly disagree with the administration’s direction. 

The main weapon that the House has to effect change is through policy riders on must-pass bills. That means Defense Authorization, which always passes, and the yearly appropriations bills, which keep the government operating. For the latter, it’s unlikely that individual bills will pass into law before the election, and so we can expect a temporary measure funding the government until a lame-duck session of Congress in November. That “continuing resolution” would be where Democrats could put their demands.

A lot of Democratic activists are justifiably angry that the House has been unable to stop Trump on several fronts. It’s surely tempting to many House Democrats to attach riders to the must-pass bills and insist on them. On the continuing resolution, that would mean threatening to shut down the government if the Senate didn’t go along and if the president didn’t sign.

Should they do it? Probably not. With the election so close and Trump polling so badly, it doesn’t make political sense for the House to attempt something dramatic enough to shake up national politics. Even if Democrats made their stand on something popular, it’s hard to predict how a shutdown showdown would play out.

On this issue, especially, knowing the endgame will determine the strategy. If Democrats think it’s in their political interest to score partial policy victories, then they’re likely to choose their priorities pragmatically, and work with willing Republicans to win legislative fights — and to have the best possible position if a shutdown happens. On the other hand, if they know that it’s just for show, they can include all sorts of riders intended to force tough votes on vulnerable Republican senators and to make Trump look bad. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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