Congressional Democrats say they are still committed to President Biden’s calls for unity, but they made clear this week that unity will be on their own terms as they laid the groundwork to circumvent Republicans in pursuit of a liberal agenda.
Their immediate focus is the next coronavirus relief package, where they are eyeing the budget process as a way to push through Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal, including a $15 federal minimum wage, without needing a single Republican vote.
Democratic leaders say they will take the first steps on that path next week, though they said it’s a backup plan and they want Republicans to work with them. But they insisted the result will be something close to Mr. Biden’s plan, whether Republicans cooperate or not.
“Our preference is to make this important work bipartisan,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “But if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation, we will have to move forward without them.”
New economic numbers showing first-time jobless claims remain high and that gross domestic product shrank by 3.5% last year, fueled Democrats’ determination to move speedily.
But Republicans said the haste — and the threats to cut them out of the process — belie Mr. Biden’s Inauguration Day promises of unity and bipartisanship.
“If they go down this road, it’s clear that they’re done with that,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican.
With Democrats’ majority trimmed in the House, and their control of the Senate tenuous with a 50-50 split and only Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote making the difference, the chances for bipartisanship had seemed high.
But Democrats are also under pressure to deliver on the expansive left-wing wish list Mr. Biden adopted during the campaign, and most of those items would face filibusters in the Senate.
The workaround is a budget tool known in Washington-speak as “reconciliation.” It allows legislation to be passed by majority vote, making it particularly powerful — but it’s also limited in what it can be used for.
It requires Congress to first pass a fiscal year budget, with orders to committees about what bills to pursue. Those bills are then stitched together, or reconciled to the original budget goals, in a second piece of legislation. Both the original budget and the reconciliation package can clear the Senate on a majority vote.
Republicans, with President Trump in office, used it to pass tax cuts and to undercut Obamacare’s individual mandate by reducing the tax penalty to $0.
Now Democrats are trying to figure out how much of their agenda can be shoehorned in this year.
One major wish list item is a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, which Republicans have declared a nonstarter, but which Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Democrats’ top member of the Budget Committee, says is a must-have.
Republicans said Democrats are likely to be disappointed. There are strict rules — set in law — about what can be done through reconciliation. Pushing the envelope could leave Democrats’ new law mired in litigation.
“There’s lots of problems trying to do what they’re trying to do, as big as they’re trying to do it, through reconciliation,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican.
He said Democrats would have better luck paring their package down to things both sides agree on, and for which there’s an urgent need, such as coronavirus vaccine distribution.
But he said Democrats have signaled they want to go much bigger.
“Of course it’s confrontational,” he said. “It’s certainly not collaborative … or you wouldn’t be trying to do it in a noncollaborative way.”
Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican who has been at the center of most major bipartisan talks in recent years, said Democrats’ budget option is “certainly not helpful.”
She helped craft the $900 billion pandemic relief package that passed in late December, cutting through months of partisan gridlock.
Now, the same group of senators is trying to work out a deal on Mr. Biden’s priorities, though they offer varying degrees of optimism over their chances.
Democratic leaders said they haven’t firmly settled on using the budget process and hold out hope that Republicans will back their bill. But they want to have the big-stick approach ready, too.
“We have more leverage getting cooperation with the other side if we have an alternative,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki said Mr. Biden wants bipartisanship, though he wouldn’t rule out the hardball tactics.
“Republicans can still vote for a package even if it goes through reconciliation,” Ms. Psaki said.
Congress has already approved $4 trillion in COVID-19 relief efforts over the past 10 months. Much of December’s $900 billion package remains unspent, though the White House says that money was too little, too late, and casts Mr. Biden’s plan as a makeup effort.
Democrats are racing a clock they themselves set.
The Senate is slated to begin the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump on Feb. 9. That is expected to absorb the chamber’s full floor schedule, and it’s not clear how long it would last.
Mr. Schumer has said he wants to have the first budget votes next week, before the impeachment crush.
It’s not just the COVID-19 package that’s irking Republicans.
Mr. Biden’s early executive actions, from restricting energy exploration to attempting to stop almost all deportations to rolling back restrictions on taxpayer money and abortions, have rubbed Republicans the wrong way as well.
“As recently as October, now-President Biden said you can’t legislate by executive action unless you are a dictator. Well, in one week he signed more than 30 unilateral actions, and working Americans are getting short shrift,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Ms. Psaki said Mr. Biden believes he is delivering on another part of his campaign promise to “take steps immediately to address the pain and suffering that the American people were feeling.”
She pointed to Mr. Biden’s approval rating, which averages about 54% in various polling counts, as evidence that the public is responding. Mr. Trump never cracked 50% in his four years in office, according to the FiveThirtyEight.com average.