Time to put ‘unity’ talk into action

Opinion February 12, 2021

Time to put ‘unity’ talk into action

Political acrimony makes easy, familiar headlines. But a confluence of events is presenting a real chance for meaningful bipartisan accomplishments. It will be a tragedy if we — as a nation, as a society — let it pass.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and other Republican Senators speak to reporters after meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House in Washington, Feb. 1, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Yes, the Senate and House are narrowly divided, and some partisans are reflexively hurling the same old tiresome barbs at each other. Look at other facts, however. The horrendous Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol shocked Americans into confronting the dangers of unrestrained tribalism. Two weeks later on that very spot, President Biden rejected polarization and extolled “unity” a dozen times in his inaugural address.

Congress now has an ideal vehicle for embracing unity and harnessing its powers: a much-needed coronavirus relief plan in which the two parties’ differences are notable, but not insurmountable. If unity means anything in a nation whose very name — the United States — invokes the concept, we can’t let this opportunity slip away.

The opening rounds of negotiations featured, not surprisingly, a sizeable gap between Republican and Democratic ideas. Democrats proposed a $1.9 trillion package; the GOP version was about one-third that amount.

Saying we can’t delay in mitigating the pandemic’s toll on Americans’ physical and financial health, House and Senate Democrats last week kicked off a parliamentary approach called “reconciliation” that, theoretically at least, could enact the Biden administration’s plan with no Republican votes.

But it doesn’t have to unfold that way. Reconciliation is just a procedural vehicle and it doesn’t always lead to party-line votes. In fact, congressional Republicans used the reconciliation process to enact President George W. Bush’s tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and in both cases, several House and Senate Democrats voted with them. In fact, the 2001 bill could not have passed without votes from a dozen Democratic senators.

The same type of results-oriented, give-and-take strategy can occur now. The Senate Republicans relief proposal on the table includes $160 billion for COVID-19 relief, the exact amount called for in the Biden plan. In fact, on Friday the House Problem Solvers Caucus called for passing this one provision separately and immediately.

Both the Biden and Senate proposals call for extending unemployment insurance and lending programs for small businesses and direct relief checks to individuals even as they differ on the amounts and who exactly should be eligible to receive help.

These aren’t trifling differences of course, there are other provisions, like state and local aid where the parties are far apart, and each side has cause to hold to their position. Democrats believe the post-2008 recovery stalled due to a too small Recovery Act and are wary of a repeat. Republicans point to data like last week’s Congressional Budget Office report forecasting that the U.S. economy is set to grow faster than any year since 1999 even without more stimulus from D.C., and worry Washington is needlessly piling on more debt than we can afford.

But even this need not be an insurmountable challenge. Why not fashion a COVID-19 relief bill in a way in which government spending automatically ramps up if certain economic and health indicators are worse than expected in a few months and ramps down if they’re better?

These types of common-sense negotiations could produce a better bill, winning wider support among Americans. And crucially, it could set an early Biden-era tone for two-party cooperation. That would break the dispiriting trend of partisan intransigence and government gridlock.

A collaborative approach is the only way our government can tackle major problems ahead, including a broken immigration system, faltering infrastructure, high medical costs and a crisis in confidence in elections and voting procedures.

With the rare exception of reconciliation (which can seldom be employed), Democrats alone cannot muster enough votes to push any package through Congress and onto President Biden’s desk. It’s simple math: In 2021-2022, America needs bipartisan problem solving or it won’t solve most of its problems.

The two parties must either find areas of common ground — and stand up to their “never compromise” factions — or lapse back into the relentless, often mindless standoffs that have alienated millions of Americans. If lawmakers poison the political well as they work toward a pandemic-relief package, they will make future tasks vastly harder.

Getting to a bipartisan deal will require both sides to be uncomfortable and give a little more than they’d like. But that’s precisely the type of back-and-forth our governmental system is built upon. It can’t work any other way.

Margaret White is executive director of No Labels, a group that seeks to move Washington beyond partisan gridlock and toward solutions to challenges faced by the country.