Unity? Sanders threatens to ram $1.9T COVID-19 stimulus bill through on simple majority vote

Sixty votes normally needed to pass legislation, but Democrats looking to bypass bipartisanship.

Updated: February 1, 2021 - 11:43am

Senate Democrats appear ready to shove through a nearly $2 trillion stimulus bill on COVID-19 with a simple majority vote.

Sen. Bernie Sanders said Sunday that Democrats will pass a proposed $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package through a process called reconciliation, which allows for a 51-majority vote rather than the 60 votes normally required to advance legislation.

Democrats will use their 50 votes in the Senate, plus Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote, to "pass legislation desperately needed by working families in this country right now," he said on CNN's "State of the Union."

"If Republicans are willing to work with us to address that crisis, welcome — let's do it," Sanders said. "But what we cannot do is wait weeks and weeks and months to go forward. We've got to act now. That's what the American people want.

"These are major policy changes, and I criticized Republicans for using reconciliation to give tax breaks to billionaires to create a situation where large profitable corporations now pay zero in federal income taxes. Yes, I did criticize them for that, and if they want to criticize me for helping to feed children who are hungry or senior citizens who are isolated and alone and don't have enough food, they can criticize me. I think it's the appropriate step forward."

But Biden's COVID-19 proposal includes a provision to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and funding for schools and state and local governments, which may not not fit into budget reconciliation rules. 

The move would be tit for tat. In 2017, the House and Senate approved a reconciliation measure to cut taxes for many Americans, which former President Trump signed into law on Dec. 22, 2017.

Earlier in that same year, Republicans tried to use reconciliation to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. While it passed in the House, the GOP-controlled Senate failed to get the needed votes to advance the bill.

Republicans, meanwhile, are calling on President Joe Biden to negotiate on the stimulus package. Ten Senate Republicans on Sunday wrote a letter to the president saying their counterproposal will include $160 billion for vaccines and COVID-19 spending and offer more targeted relief than Biden's plan to send out $1,400 to most Americans.

"In the spirit of bipartisanship and unity, we have developed a COVID-19 relief framework that builds on prior COVID assistance laws, all of which passed with bipartisan support," the Republican lawmakers wrote. "Our proposal reflects many of your stated priorities, and with your support, we believe that this plan could be approved quickly by Congress with bipartisan support."

Sen. Bill Cassidy said during an interview on "Fox News Sunday" that the package would cost just $600 billion, less than a third of the Democrats' plan. He said the plan would include $1,000 payments to Americans, although the checks would be targeted to lower income levels.

"If you say you want bipartisanship and you want unity and you want Republicans to join, and then you have a budget reconciliation which is chock-full of handouts and payouts to Democratic constituency groups ... you don't want bipartisanship, you want the patina of bipartisanship, but you want to stick it and ram it through," the Louisiana Republican told Fox's Chris Wallace. 

But Sanders appeared past the point of negotiation. Asked on ABC's "This Week" if he thinks Democrats have enough votes to pass the bill without Republican support, Sanders said, "Yes."

"I believe that we do because it's hard for me to imagine any Democrat, no matter what state he or she may come from, who doesn't understand the need to go forward right now in an aggressive way to protect the working families of this country," Sanders said.

"Look, all of us will have differences of opinion,” Sanders said. This is a $1.9 trillion bill. I have differences and concerns about this bill. But at the end of the day, we're going to support the president of the United States, and we're going to come forward, and we're going to do what the American people overwhelmingly want us to do. The polling is overwhelming. Republicans, Democrats, independents."

Although Biden preached unity during his inaugural address on Jan. 20, his administration, too, seems little inclined to patient bipartisanship and negotiation.

Jared Bernstein, a member of President Biden's Council of Economic Advisers, said Sunday Americans don't care how the bill is passed.

"Look, the American people really couldn't care less about budget process, whether it's regular order, bipartisanship, whether it's filibuster, whether it's reconciliation," Bernstein told "Fox News Sunday," stressing that people "need relief, and they need it now."

Bernstein said that Biden is "willing to negotiate" with Republicans — but not for long."If we don't get this package as designed out the door quickly, we risk having four million fewer jobs at the end of this year," he said, adding that failure to act quickly would "risk taking a year longer to get to full employment."

Just the News Spotlight