JONATHAN KARL: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Jonathan Karl.
As the Senate grapples with impeachment, President Joe Biden is addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic recovery is uneven. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warned that the real unemployment rate is actually higher than public estimates, and even as the COVID case numbers are falling progress could be undone by more contagious variants of the virus on the move. The clock is ticking to get people vaccinated. Here is what President Biden told reporters this week.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We’ve already lost over 450,000 people, and we’re going to lose a whole lot more if we don’t act and act decisively and quickly.
MR. KARL: Joining us tonight are four reporters covering what’s unfolding in Washington: Rachael Bade, co-author of Politico Playbook; Julie Pace, Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press; Phil Rucker, senior Washington correspondent for The Washington Post; and my colleague Rachel Scott, congressional correspondent for ABC News.
Rachael Bade, President Biden was actually able to focus on everything but the impeachment trial as it unfolded and work did progress on the COVID-19 bill, $1.9 trillion bill. How does it look? Is he going to be able to use reconciliation to get most of what he wants with just Democratic votes?
RACHAEL BADE: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, I think there’s been a sense for a few days now that Democrats are probably going to go it alone. Obviously, there were some gestures to Republicans – did they want to deal, did they want to try to strike some sort of agreement to lower the ambitions of what Biden put forward in terms of that $1.9 trillion pandemic bill – but very clearly Democrats, you know, have sort of brushed that off a little bit. I mean, they did a little bit of talks, but it’s clear in the public polling that the public is very much behind what Biden has put forward, and I think Democrats are looking at those numbers and they’re feeling very confident about that, so they’re sort of pressing forward.
Right now, though, and in the next few days the thing to be watching will be how Democrats sort of come to their own agreement internally. I mean, the party is divided between, you know, very progressive members and more moderate Democrats, and we’re already sort of seeing that percolate a little bit over this minimum wage debate, about whether they want to put a minimum wage hike in this coronavirus package – some progressives wanting to do it, but then moderate Democrats in the Senate whose votes Biden absolutely need – needs to pass this bill saying no way. So I think it’s a matter of time before it gets passed, but it might be a little messy in the coming days between Democrats on both sides of the spectrum.
MR. KARL: Yeah, and Julie, he doesn’t need Republicans, but man, the margins are tight, and when you’ve got a 50-50 Senate and you’re not going to get any Republicans that means Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, to name two, they’re in charge.
JULIE PACE: They’re pretty powerful right now. I mean, when you look at the math, there’s no wiggle room here. Yes, Biden can get this through with just Democrats, but he needs all of the Democrats. And as Rachael notes, the Democrats are united on the topline – they are united on the idea that they need to do something big, they need to do something fast, and that their response as now the party in charge in Washington to the pandemic is how they will be judged – but within that, the details of getting that sorted, you do see a range of views on this, and I think minimum wage will be a big test here. Biden himself kind of interestingly had already been signaling that maybe this wasn’t going to get through using process as an excuse, and that kind of left some of the more liberal members of his party a little bit miffed – why would you take something off the table even before you really started the negotiations over this? Biden is a realist. He also knows that more than any one specific proposal he needs to get something big done and he needs to do it relatively quickly. And so I think he will try to find the path of least resistance to keep his whole party together over the next couple of weeks.
MR. KARL: And the challenge has been the moderates, certainly when it came to the question of minimum wage. But, Rachel Scott, the progressives were skeptical of Biden. He was not the progressive choice. Wasn’t the first choice, the second choice, the third choice, or maybe the fourth or fifth choice in the primaries for progressive Democrats. But they – what’s your sense? They seem pretty happy so far with the direction Biden’s gone?
RACHEL SCOTT: Well, I think they’re looking at this COVID-19 relief package, and I think they’re supportive of the fact that President Joe Biden didn’t back down from this nearly $2 trillion figure. These progressives, they want to go big. They believe that this is an unprecedented crisis and that they need to give unprecedented relief to the American people. So I think they’re looking at this next round of stimulus checks that are wanted – that President Joe Biden wants to push, looking at the number, and seeing that he’s standing firm on not doing any wiggle room there with those $1,400 checks that would go out to families, and then the extra $3,000 that is now being proposed for most American families with children.
I think they’re looking at that and they’re saying: OK, there is some wiggle room here. It seems like he does want to go big rather than go small, and he’s not willing to compromise. But there is questions on how long that’s going to last. And especially when it comes to minimum wage, that is something that progressives in the party have been pushing for for months now. And they want Joe Biden to act on it while they have the Senate, the House, and the White House, Jon.
MR. KARL: I mean, Phil, it’s a matter of time before he’s going to disappoint progressives, just because of the reality of what he can get through. But I think one thing that’s been striking about Biden, even as he’s pushed this, you know, go-it-alone, you know, we’ll do this with just Democrats, is it seems – am I correct – it seems like he actually still has a pretty good relationship so far in the starting weeks with Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate?
PHILIP RUCKER: It would appear that way, Jon. And it seems that that relationship is very valuable to Biden. And he seems to be going out of his way not only to maintain ties with McConnell but to try to cultivate relationships with other Republican senators, who may not be with him on this COVID package but, you know, may be willing to come to meet with him on a future issue and be a part of some future deal.
Being a bipartisan president has been kind of core to what Biden has wanted to do in this office. It’s something that he prided himself on when he was in the Senate himself. He dealt with Republicans when he was the vice president to Barack Obama. And I think he’s going to try to look for ways to bring along some of those Republicans, even if it doesn’t happen on this – on this massive COVID bill.
MR. KARL: All right, well, let’s leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to Rachael Bade, Julie Pace, Phil Rucker, and Rachel Scott. Thank you for your insights and thank you for joining us.
Make sure to sign up for the Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you the behind the scenes look at all things Washington. I’m Jonathan Karl. Good night from Washington.