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Cold War In Congress: The Partisan Divide Over The COVID-19 Relief Package


President Biden says he's trying to work with Republicans on a bipartisan deal on COVID funding. Biden wants $1.9 trillion. Republicans want just over half a trillion. That is a huge divide. And if they can't work it out, Democrats in Congress are already planning for a way to avoid bipartisanship and a filibuster. All they need is a decades-old budget rule and unanimous agreement among Senate Democrats. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell explains.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Before President Joe Biden was even sworn into office, he was calling for Congress to immediately pass a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill filled with money for schools, vaccines, unemployment and a major boost to the minimum wage. And he wanted it to be bipartisan. But a week into the Biden administration, this is where Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said things stood.


CHUCK SCHUMER: But if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation, we will have to move forward without them.

SNELL: In the Senate, where Democrats just barely hold a majority, there are really only two ways to skip a bipartisan deal. One is to kill the filibuster, which requires two-thirds of the Senate to vote to let a bill proceed. It's called going nuclear, and it involves completely blowing up the rules of the Senate forever. And people who believe in the system that has governed Congress for over 100 years say getting rid of this forced bipartisanship would be chaotic.

Some progressives say the filibuster stands in the way of getting things done. Without it, Democrats could try to pass a COVID relief bill and maybe, they say, they could try to enact the Green New Deal or Medicare for all with a simple majority. But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has warned that if Democrats go this route, there's a price.


MITCH MCCONNELL: When Republicans next control the government, we'd be able to repeal every bill that had just been rammed through. And we'd set about defending the unborn, exploring domestic energy, unleashing free enterprise, defunding sanctuary cities, securing the border, protecting workers' paychecks from union bosses. You get the picture.

SNELL: Democrats have already chipped away at the filibuster, and some say they did pay a price. They ended the filibuster for judges to move some of President Obama's nominees. Republicans used that same power to install nearly 300 federal judges under President Trump. So Democrats are looking at other ways to pass a COVID bill without dropping a nuclear bomb. They're already writing a budget bill that includes the option of using something called reconciliation.

ZACH MOLLER: All pressure cookers have a release valve so that it doesn't explode. This is a normal process to hit the release valve.

SNELL: That's Zach Moller. He's deputy director of economic programs at the center-left think tank Third Way. Moller says budget reconciliation is a way to pass large pieces of legislation that have a huge fiscal component without having to deal with the filibuster. In the past, it was used primarily for deficit reduction, but major programs, like the Affordable Care Act and the 2017 GOP tax cuts, were done with reconciliation. He says it's a way for the majority to take advantage of complicated Senate rules, not break them.

MOLLER: It's not a backdoor. It's more like express lanes on the highway. It's a way to get you where you want to go, sometimes faster, oftentimes with less congestion.

SNELL: But budget reconciliation isn't a silver bullet. There are complex rules that allow senators to try to amend and undermine a reconciliation bill. And John Cornyn, one of the top Republicans in the Senate, has warned that forcing something as huge as nearly $2 trillion in spending through this way could be as damaging as ending the filibuster. But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders says Democrats are giving themselves the option of going it alone.


BERNIE SANDERS: I think there is a consensus that Republicans are not prepared to come on board. That's fine. We're not going to wait. We're going forward soon and aggressively.

SNELL: The question for Democrats and President Biden in the coming weeks is whether it's time to throw some bipartisanship out the window.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF HNNY'S "KINDNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.