Senator Susan Collins
Susan Collins, U.S. Senator, (R.-Maine), U.S. Senate speaking at Fortune's Most Powerful Women summit. Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women

U.S. Sen­ate Repub­li­cans are once more try­ing the “Peanuts gam­bit” in seek­ing to block or vast­ly dimin­ish Pres­i­dent Joe Biden’s pro­posed $1.9 tril­lion COVID-19 recov­ery pro­pos­al (dubbed The Amer­i­can Res­cue Plan).

The gam­bit is named for a famous fea­ture in Charles M. Schulz’s beloved car­toon strip, in which Lucy set down a foot­ball in the hold­er posi­tion, only to jerk it up and send Char­lie Brown sprawl­ing as he sought to kick the ball.

The tac­tic was deployed to per­fec­tion dur­ing the Oba­ma years.

The goal this year is to make Biden sprawl, or become immersed in a drawn-out mess. As of this after­noon, a group of ten Repub­li­can Sen­a­tors were head­ed to the White House to pitch an alter­na­tive, impo­tent $618 bil­lion recov­ery plan.

It omits the $15-an-hour min­i­mum wage, aid to belea­guered state gov­ern­ments, and scales back the exten­sion of unem­ploy­ment benefits.

Repub­li­cans say they are offer­ing up uni­ty and bipar­ti­san­ship, flat­ter­ing Biden that this was the kind of deal he was able to cut dur­ing thir­ty-six years in the Sen­ate. With ten Repub­li­can votes, plus the Senate’s fifty Democ­rats, there would be a fil­i­buster proof Sen­ate major­i­ty for adopt­ing a new relief package.

So far, Biden and the Democ­rats aren’t going for it.

Press Sec­re­tary Jen Psa­ki made clear, in Monday’s White House brief­ing, that the meet­ing with Repub­li­cans is not a negotiation.

“What this meet­ing is not is a forum for the Pres­i­dent to make or accept an offer,” said Psa­ki. “The risk is not that it is too big, this pack­age. The risk is that it is too small. That remains (Biden’s) view.”

Bri­an Deese, direc­tor of the Nation­al Eco­nom­ic Coun­cil, made the case Sun­day on CNN for a big recov­ery pack­age to treat a pan­dem­ic that has rav­aged the Amer­i­can econ­o­my and wors­ened income inequality.

“We’re in a unique cri­sis,” said Deese. “And the ele­ments of this (Biden) plan real­ly were designed and are designed to take on that cri­sis head on … We’re cer­tain­ly open to input from any­where where we can find a con­struc­tive idea to make this pack­age as effec­tive as pos­si­ble. But the Pres­i­dent is uncom­pro­mis­ing when it comes to the speed that we need to act to address this crisis.”

The Repub­li­cans’ offer may well be a gam­bit designed to get skin in the game. If the past offers any indi­ca­tion, how­ev­er, the process will get drawn out and urgency will be lost if Biden decides to try to do a deal with them.

Inevitably, we are sure to hear from Sen­ate Repub­li­cans that the econ­o­my is recov­er­ing so rapid­ly that no big aid pack­age is needed.

Joe Biden is a busy per­son these days, but hope­ful­ly he’s found time to read Pres­i­dent Obama’s mem­oir, “A Promised Land.” After all, he’s a major char­ac­ter in it. Beyond that, how­ev­er, in the book, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma fess­es up to hav­ing been snook­ered on key leg­is­la­tion dur­ing the ear­ly years of his presidency.

He trust­ed Senaor Max Bau­cus, inef­fec­tu­al chair of the Sen­ate Finance Com­mit­tee, to explore a health care com­pro­mise with Repub­li­cans. “We signed off on scores of changes they want­ed made in Bau­cus’ draft bill,” he writes.

“Time’s up, Max,” Oba­ma told the sen­a­tor after months of talks.

But Bau­cus want­ed to go on… and on… and on.

“A part of me want­ed to get up, grab Bau­cus by the shoul­ders, and shake him till he came to his sens­es,” Oba­ma recalls. “I decid­ed this wouldn’t work.”

Ulti­mate­ly, the Democ­rats had to essen­tial­ly go it alone.

They suf­fered a repeat per­for­mance after the House passed an cli­mate bill, with Washington’s then-Rep. Jay Inslee work­ing to line up votes from “Rust Belt” Democ­rats want­i­ng a soft land­ing for their smoke­stack industries.

In the Sen­ate, how­ev­er, envi­ron­ment cham­pi­on Sen. John Ker­ry tried to nego­ti­ate with the Repub­li­can Par­ty’s spine­less Sen­a­tor Lind­say Graham.

“Unless Lin­coln and Ted­dy Roo­sevelt are walk­ing through that door, , bud­dy, he’s all we’ve got,” chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told Obama.

The result was no bill.

The Amer­i­can Recov­ery and Rein­vest­ment Act, the Oba­ma res­cue leg­is­la­tion, was a major achieve­ment, but small­er than the admin­is­tra­tion want­ed. (It helped pay for removal of two fish-destroy­ing dams on the Elwa Riv­er, mas­ter stream of the Olympic Penin­su­la.) Still, Oba­ma had to acqui­esce to a bill under $800 bil­lion “because any fig­ure high­er than that just seemed ‘too much’.”

The fact that Oba­ma was reach­ing out to Maine’s Repub­li­can Sen­a­tors Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, work­ing in a “bipar­ti­san fash­ion”, was treat­ed by much of the horse race obsessed Belt­way press corps as sig­ni­fy­ing “Solomon­ic rea­son and wis­dom”, Oba­ma writes of the deal-making.

Aside from the votes of Collins, Snowe, and Pennsylvania’s then-Republcan Sen­a­tor Arlen Specter (who sub­se­quent­ly became a Demo­c­rat) the Recov­ery Act passed the House and Sen­ate on par­ty line votes. The Great Reces­sion was not enough to inspire bipar­ti­san­ship. Nor, appar­ent­ly, is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen­a­tor Collins is at it again, as an archi­tect of the inad­e­quate $618 bil­lion Repub­li­can relief pro­pos­al. Can Biden be lured into negotiating?

At the edges, prob­a­bly yes. But any larg­er con­ces­sion invites morass.

The Pres­i­dent would need to return to Con­gress for new exten­sions in unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits when pro­vi­sions in the Repub­li­can pro­pos­al run out.

By that time, with 2022 elec­tions loom­ing, it would be in Repub­li­cans’ polit­i­cal inter­ests to keep the econ­o­my in a hole.

“The Repub­li­cans’ offer is insuf­fi­cient,” recent­ly des­ig­nat­ed Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Chuck Schumer said over the weekend.

Under rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, the Democ­rats need only fifty-plus-one Sen­ate votes to pass Biden’s larg­er recov­ery pack­age. Inde­pen­dent Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders told ABC’s “This Week” on Sun­day that the Democ­rats’ votes are there.

Sen­a­tor Rob Port­man, R‑Ohio, one of the ten Repub­li­cans spon­sor­ing the $618 bil­lion pack­age, argued Sun­day that Biden would be going back on the heal­ing mes­sage of his inau­gur­al address. After a pledge to reach out across the aisle to Repub­li­cans, “then the next day land­ing on our desks a $1.9 tril­lion COVID-19 pack­age, when only a month ago, we passed a $900 bil­lion COVID-19 pack­age that was entire­ly bipar­ti­san,” said an offend­ed Portman.

Words that can bring tears to your eyes — if you hap­pen to be a crocodile.

Sen­ate Repub­li­cans used rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to ram through the mas­sive Trump tax cut bill and tried rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to repeal the Patient Pro­tec­tion and Afford­able Care Act. The raw exer­cise of pow­er, cut­ting off health care to mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, was thwart­ed only by a thumbs-down from Sen­a­tor John McCain.

The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has just under a mil­lion Amer­i­cans fil­ing for unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits each week. The pan­dem­ic has desta­bi­lized the econ­o­my. The coun­try is at a point, com­pa­ra­ble to sev­er­al lows in the Great Depres­sion, where deci­sive­ness and big-scale think­ing are needed.

Joe Biden was elect­ed in Novem­ber to get grips on a cri­sis that was dis­as­trous­ly mis­han­dled by his pre­de­ces­sor. The actions tak­en in the first few months of his pres­i­den­cy are sure to define Biden’s legacy.

The forty-sixth Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States was for decades a fix­ture on Capi­tol Hill. He is now the elect­ed leader of a nation that is hurting.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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One reply on “Senate Republicans seek to devitalize COVID relief bill that will define Biden’s presidency”

  1. You state in anoth­er excel­lent­ly writ­ten arti­cle that “The pan­dem­ic has desta­bi­lized the econ­o­my. The coun­try is at a point com­pa­ra­ble to sev­er­al lows in the Great Depres­sion, where deci­sive­ness and big-scale think­ing are need­ed.” I could­n’t agree more and US HR 6422 might just do that. It’s the $4 tril­lion (soon to be $5T) nation­al infra­struc­ture bank bill that would cre­ate 25 mil­lion new jobs; pay­ing union-lev­el wages, with no addi­tion­al tax­es and no new fed­er­al debt. The NIB, just like the pub­lic bank­ing move­ment that is gain­ing ground across the nation and in our state with WA SJ 5188 just seems to make more sense the more I learn about them. Thank you for your great reporting.

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