Instead, Republicans are comfortable foisting blame on Biden for shutting them out of the legislative process and hammering Democrats over the slow pace of school reopenings across the country — an issue they think will become a potent political weapon, particularly in key suburban battlegrounds. If there’s any risk of political blowback for lining up against Covid aid that polls well with the public, most Republicans aren’t seeing it.
On Tuesday, Senate GOP leaders devoted most of their weekly press conference to the school reopening debate. Thune said Democrats seem more interested in money for Planned Parenthood “than they are about getting kids back into class,” while Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said Biden “has surrendered to the teachers’ union.”
And House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) recently hosted a conference call with struggling and exhausted parents and has offered them an online forum to share their stories.
“It’s total bullshit, this package we’re getting,” said freshman Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who flipped her House seat in November. “I’m a single working mom who is working her tail off, desperate to get her kids educated.”
“And I see the Biden administration is opening up the border, but not opening up our schools,” she added. “How is this putting our kids first?”
Still, Republicans know the stakes are high. Coronavirus deaths in the United States have now surpassed 500,000, a grim new milestone. And the relief package is loaded with provisions that have broad bipartisan support, from vaccine money to another round of stimulus checks.
Some of the House GOP’s freshmen — who haven’t had the opportunity to vote for any Covid relief measures yet — initially wrestled with whether to back the bill. But GOP leaders in both chambers have been firing up their messaging and whip operations against the package, which is expected to get a floor vote in the House later this week. Few, if any, House Republicans are expected to cross party lines and support it.
“As more people find out what’s in this bill — and what’s not in this bill — they get more furious,” said Scalise, referring to things like a $15 hourly minimum wage, billions of dollars for pension funds and money for public transit and art. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant for liberal policies.”
In the Senate, 10 Republicans sought a deal directly with Biden, but the president and Democratic leaders took an approach that can pass without GOP votes. To say those senators are annoyed is an understatement.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), among the most amenable to working with Biden on aid, said she isn’t 100 percent opposed yet but is not enthused by the bill’s $1.9 trillion price tag. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) criticized the plan’s “extraordinary wastefulness” and said it was “just nuts” to send $350 billion to states and cities.
The relief plan is a key unity test for the GOP following weeks of bitter infighting sparked by the deadly pro-Trump riots at the Capitol last month. Biden and several moderate Democrats are eager to attract just a single Republican vote to give the bill a bipartisan passage.
Yet many Republicans are rallying against the Biden agenda, hoping to shift away from uncomfortable questions about the party’s identity in the post-Trump world.
Now they are marketing the relief bill as a pork-laden offering to progressives who helped push Biden into office. And very few Republicans say they have any qualms about opposing it.
“What’s in it is not going to be popular,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “It’s bad politics for them. Because the narrative is that they’re liberal, they just spend money like there’s no tomorrow, that every time there’s a crisis they load it up with spending.”
Democrats are agog that Republicans don’t see the downside in opposing a bill that polls better than most politicians do. Moreover, the GOP just lost two Senate seats in Georgia to a unified Democratic campaign in favor of big stimulus checks — and a big pandemic rescue plan.
“The people are with us,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), one of last month’s two Democratic victors. Unanimous GOP opposition, he added, “would be an example of an inside-the-Beltway partisan perspective clouding the judgment of politicians who should be working together.”
Yet for a GOP that cut its teeth in the modern era on steadfast opposition to former President Barack Obama’s hopes of sweeping legislation on health care and energy policy, there’s something unifying about bludgeoning the Democrats over policy rather than talking about Trump and their brutal party schism.
Asked whether he should have done more to constrain the more radical elements of his party on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell replied: “What you need to focus on is how unified we are today in opposition to what the Biden administration is trying to do.”
“It’s not a hard no vote when only 10 percent of the dollars go to a vaccine and vaccine distribution,” added Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who tried to seek a bipartisan deal with Biden.
Republicans have zeroed in on the school reopening debate, framing it as a dire academic and mental health issue for both children and parents. And while the Covid relief package includes $128 billion for schools to deal with the virus, Republicans note that most of the money won’t be spent until 2022 or later, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, while pots of money from previous bills remain unspent.
“That really has to be fine-tuned,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), co-chair of the GOP Doctors Caucus. “If we’re spending this kind of money, what is it actually going for, right now, to reopen schools?”
The White House, meanwhile, has sent mixed messages about whether vaccinations for teachers are necessary to safely resume in-person learning, though Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated this week that it is not a “prerequisite.” And Republicans have also accused Biden of moving the goalposts after he clarified he wants most, not all, K-8 schools to reopen within his first 100 days in office.
Freshman GOP Rep. Ashley Hinson — a mother of two who represents a key swing district in Iowa — has been front and center on the issue. During Monday’s House Budget Committee markup, she tried to attach language to the relief bill to ensure schools have a reopening plan before they receive additional funding, but it was rejected.
“I don’t like that I have to vote against this bill,” Hinson said. But, she added: “It’s very clear Democrats didn’t want to come to the table on any of the issues. … Americans need to know what’s going on here.”