The looming stimulus deal is a dispiriting harbinger of the endless gridlock to come

This is just a preview of Biden's Washington

Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Seven months after the House passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act that died in the Senate, and days after the U.S. COVID-19 death toll eclipsed 300,000, congressional leaders are on the verge of finalizing, at long last, a second round of stimulus spending for the beleaguered U.S. economy.

The rescue package is likely to include direct payments to all Americans, funding for vaccine rollout and delivery, and an extension of unemployment benefits as well as much-needed aid to small businesses. The total price tag looks to come in at around $900 billion. Left out, as far as we know, will be funding for cash-strapped state and local governments, a worrying sign that Republicans are bent on returning to their pre-Trump commitment to pointless austerity now that Democrat Joe Biden is headed to the White House.

Something is certainly better than nothing. But long, contentious negotiations resulting in de facto austerity for millions of Americans, looming bankruptcies and service cuts for states and cities, and impunity for companies willfully endangering their employees are a dispiriting harbinger of the endless gridlock to come should Republicans hold the Senate. Instead of Democrats setting the agenda in Washington, the key player will remain Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who will have no conceivable reason to compromise or play fair. Why should he? He's been playing the same ruthless game for more than a decade now, and voters keep giving the gavel back to him.

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While it will help some weather the months of misery to come, the deal represents a catastrophic strategic failure for Democrats. Throughout the fall, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) refused to take up a similar but larger $1.8 trillion package on offer from the White House. While there were legitimate doubts about whether it had any chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate (or if President Trump's White House would honor an agreement), the real holdup was Pelosi's not unreasonable belief that Democrats were about to sweep into power in the Senate and increase their House advantage. That obviously didn't happen, although the upper chamber is still in play. Holding out for more money and for McConnell to fold on his insistence on shielding companies from liability if they endanger the lives of their workers, Pelosi in the end looks like she might get neither.

Pelosi, of course, was hardly the only person in D.C. who thought Republicans were going to get dismissed with prejudice from government on November 3rd. More than anything, these rancorous stimulus negotiations are a terrifying preview of post-pandemic life under divided government if Democrats fail to sweep the Georgia Senate runoffs on January 5th. If you thought the last six years of the Obama administration were fun — non-stop budget standoffs, fiscal cliff brinksmanship, government shutdowns, and the deliberate muzzling of the post-Great Recession recovery — you'll love the coming showdowns between the Biden administration and an emboldened Republican Senate.

After years of feeding paper into the money printer, letting it go whirr, and reaping the political benefits of what the outgoing president constantly called "the greatest economy in history," Senate Republicans will now do everything in their power to bring it all crashing down around them. Their relentless obsession with deficits, which they had conveniently left back in the Obama era along with their concern about dead Americans and the "McConnell Rule" about Supreme Court appointments in an election year, will return with a vengeance. They will use the opportunity of the economic recession to put pressure on states and municipalities to slash spending and services, and to continue hollowing out the capacity of the public sector. Like Obama, Biden will suffer politically from the slow recovery inflicted on him by Republican obstruction.

Amazingly, Biden is still running around telling reporters he thinks he can change this. Just this week he predicted that " Donald Trump's shadow fades away, you're going to see an awful lot of change." After six to eight months, Biden claimed, the Republicans who keep telling him in private that they will work with him will come around.

Six to eight months? What exactly will be happening in the interim, especially if Biden also believes there are strict limits on his executive power? Why is he still talking about winning Republicans over, instead of defeating them? He's the one who carried Georgia, and he should stay camped out there for the next month trying to bring a Democratic Senate across the line. Retire the happy talk and give it to the voters straight: It's either us, or it's two years of unbearable paralysis.

Maybe Biden felt like he needed to indulge these delusions to get elected president. But the belief that his Republican counterparts are basically decent people whose fevers will break once the pathogen of Donald Trump exits the body politic was part of the problem all along. It convinced too many people that the only problem was Trump and not the political party that spent four years covering up his crimes and abuses and then actively joining his assault on American democracy and decency. It failed to tie the administration's catastrophic COVID mismanagement to the congressional GOP's sycophantic obeisance to Trump's laziness, ineptitude, and indifference to widespread misery.

The reward for that blind trust in the goodness of Republicans, cultivated by Biden and other Democrats who chose to turn the Democratic National Convention into an advertisement for Republican defectors, was for the GOP to turn right around and endorse the president's sordid plot against the republic. Last week, 126 Republican members of the House endorsed the preposterous plan to have GOP state legislators appoint their own slate of electors, and to hand the election to the man who lost it. Even if the lot of them knew that this attempted coup was doomed to fail in court, it will go down as one of the most shameful episodes in modern American history.

It wasn't just the famously reactionary House GOP either. A number of Senate Republicans were in on the conspiracy, including Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). The runner-up in the 2016 Republican primary, Ted Cruz (R-Texas) offered to argue these ridiculous cases before the Supreme Court. Does Biden think that a few months after trying to literally overthrow the duly elected government of the United States, these same senators are going to have such a huge change of heart that they will agree to work with him for the good of the people? I hope Biden keeps a large supply of hot sauce and some Himalayan sea salt on hand, because when he eats those words he'll need help getting them down.

Given the dire circumstances facing millions of Americans, though, and the long-shot nature of winning both Georgia runoffs, Democrats are making the right call to compromise on a stimulus package. If McConnell retains his Senate majority, there will likely be no help at all for anyone, and that's too big a risk to take.

For restaurateurs and other business owners whose bottom lines are dependent on the long-lost face-to-face contact of the Before Times, this could be the difference between a long winter of slowly going broke, and surviving until the vaccine makes in-person gatherings safe again sometime in the spring. And while $600 per person (the rumored number for direct payments) is woefully inadequate to the task of repairing the vast economic damage wrought by the pandemic and the federal government's embarrassing failure to address it, putting cash directly into people's pockets helped avert the worst when COVID-19 first washed up on these shores.

It's worth trying again, even if it's not enough. Of course, with negotiations ongoing, we could still end up with no deal at all, or perhaps an agreement in which Democrats get more. But if they don't like this already tiresome dynamic, Biden and his allies need to make the Georgia runoffs the focus of their political lives, or else resign themselves to another term for McConnell's informal presidency.

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