President Biden faces a major decision just weeks into his presidency: Does he genuinely try to work with Republicans to produce a bipartisan compromise aimed at alleviating the damage done by the pandemic? Or does he push forward with just the votes of Democratic lawmakers, who hold slim majorities in both chambers of Congress?
In the short run, the economics might well argue for avoiding compromise and passing the Democratic bill, which totals about $1.9 trillion for a wide variety of relief efforts. As White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki insisted, Biden "will not settle for a package that fails to meet the moment."
But if Biden takes a longer view, he would be better served by negotiating seriously with Republicans and accepting a compromise if one becomes at all possible. A bipartisan deal on a relief package could serve as a critical precedent — a template for future cooperation on issues Biden cares deeply about, from immigration reform to voting rights.
The biggest deficit in Washington these days is trust. The animosity between the parties grew so deep during the Trump years that rival factions seldom even spoke to each other. And when they did, it was with barely concealed contempt. A bipartisan agreement on a stimulus bill could start the process of rebuilding relationships and rekindling a spirit of mutual respect.
After all, that is exactly what the president said he wanted to do during the campaign, when he pledged to "restore dignity and decency to the White House." Just seeing the photo this week of 10 Republican senators meeting cordially with Biden and Vice President Harris in the White House to discuss a $618 billion proposal marked a refreshing change in the capital's climate. Back in October of 2019, Democratic leaders stormed out of a White House meeting with President Trump and never dealt with him directly again.
Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said of Biden, after a session that lasted two hours: "He seems committed to try to get a bipartisan deal."
Added Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who organized the Republican delegation, "It was a very good exchange of views."
The Washington Post captured the spirit of the meeting in an editorial: "Ms. Collins was right to bring a GOP proposal forward, and Mr. Biden was right to hear out the senators." As the Post added, "it would be better for the country" if both sides showed flexibility and genuinely tried to find common ground.
It's hard to be optimistic about the prospects for a workable compromise, and Biden knows that. The forces pulling the parties apart are far stronger than those binding them together. For one thing, it's not at all clear if the Republicans who met with Biden were serious about negotiating, or if they just wanted a photo op that will enable them to say, once talks collapse, "See? We tried working with the White House, but they were unreasonable."
And Senate Republicans are still led by Mitch McConnell, the most implacable of partisan warriors, who once vowed to make Barack Obama a one-term president. He failed in that goal, but succeeded in blocking Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court for an entire year — and then proceeded to install 245 Trump appointees in federal judgeships, including three on the Supreme Court. Biden cannot succeed in his goal of fostering bipartisanship without a sincere negotiating partner.
Biden also faces a major problem with the left wing of his own party, which is demanding that he use a parliamentary process called reconciliation to evade a Republican filibuster and pass his entire package undiluted by compromise. Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who heads the Finance Committee, called the Republicans' initial offer "an insult to the millions of workers and families struggling to survive this crisis." And Sen. Bernie Sanders, who heads the Budget Committee, is ready to denounce Biden as a sellout if he deals seriously with Republicans.
Still, a stimulus package is by far Biden's best opportunity to lower the temperature in Washington and nourish the unity he talks so much about. The national need is so great that 7 out of 10 Americans want GOP lawmakers to work with the new president — including 2 of 5 Republicans, according to the latest Monmouth poll.
If Biden succeeds, more progress on other issues might become possible. The flicker of hope ignited at that White House meeting will get more oxygen. But if he fails, the chances for success on Biden's more ambitious agenda items will fade rapidly.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.