With slim majorities in both chambers and control of the White House, Democrats are simultaneously gauging Republicans' appetite for another pricey rescue package while also embarking on a legislative solo mission that'll allow them to pass it without any GOP support: budget reconciliation.
The procedural move takes away the filibuster as a shield for the minority party by removing the 60-vote threshold needed to advance most Senate legislation and replacing it with a simple majority. To avoid its use in a 50-50 split Senate, Democrats will need to win over at least 10 Republicans, which is looking like a tough prospect given the GOP's increasing hesitancy to keep funding large rescue packages. President Joe Biden has released a $1.9 trillion proposal, though it's likely to undergo changes.
Biden and congressional Democrats insist that Republican input and support remain their first priorities. But if both parties can't find common ground, Democrats vow to move on without them. And they're not waiting to see if bipartisan support for more COVID-19 aid comes to fruition before at least making the first moves on reconciliation, since the party is working with a short timeline.
Democrats are aiming to make significant headway and pass a bill by mid-March because of an "unemployment insurance cliff." Enhanced federal unemployment benefits of $300 a week, which were approved in the latest package from December, are set to expire on March 14.
"Our preference is to make this important work bipartisan. ... But if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation, we will have to move forward without them," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Thursday. "We have a responsibility to help the American people fast, particularly given these new economic numbers."
The go-it-alone approach would be a marked difference from how Congress passed a series of bills between March and December of last year that garnered overwhelming bipartisan support. And it would come at a time when relationships are already severely strained and now further exacerbated amid the fallout of the riots that ransacked the Capitol.
Lawmakers last year passed nearly half a dozen installments of coronavirus aid that totaled almost $4 trillion even as partisan rancor consumed Congress. Four separate bills passed in quick succession in the early weeks of the pandemic, followed by months of contentious on-again, off-again negotiations. The dry spell ended in late December with the passage of $900 billion in COVID-19 aid that gave Americans $600 stimulus checks and restored federal unemployment benefits at half the amount from the March package.
Democrats are anxious to move quickly in the early days of the Biden administration and pass much-needed relief as the country grapples with nearly 26 million total cases and a death toll nearing 435,000 amid a slower-than-expected vaccine rollout.