WHO IS THE most powerful Joe in Washington? That question seems to have an easy answer: Joe Biden, the president. But close on his heels is West Virginia’s senior senator, Joe Manchin. Because Democrats control the Senate by the slimmest possible majority, because he is probably the only Democrat who could win a statewide election in West Virginia—which Donald Trump won last year by almost 40 percentage points—and because he is not up for re-election until 2024, Mr Manchin has the clout to pursue an independent line and a political incentive not to stray too far leftward.
Mr Biden’s agenda hangs on his vote. Mr Manchin’s opposition to Neera Tanden, Mr Biden’s pick to head the Office of Management and Budget, effectively quashed her chances. A coal-country native and fossil-fuel advocate, he heads the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and may rein in some of his party’s climate actions. And as Democratic senators worked through the night of March 5th to pass Mr Biden’s covid-19 relief bill, Mr Manchin flexed his muscles. He supported the bill, but only after hours of negotiation, a personal call from the other Joe and a trim of its unemployment benefits. With his vote, the measure passed in a manner that will no doubt grow familiar over the next two years: not a single Democrat voted against it; not a single Republican supported it.
Even with the cuts, the bill remains staggeringly ambitious. It includes $1,400 cheques for most Americans (individuals making $75,000 or less and couples making $150,000 or less); $300 in federal unemployment benefits until early September; almost $60bn to develop and distribute vaccines and $49bn to improve testing and tracing; $170bn to help schools reopen by providing protective gear and better ventilation; $25bn for the restaurant industry, which covid-19 has decimated; and $350bn to help state, local and tribal governments fill budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic. It also expands the child tax credit from its current level of $2,000 a year for children under 16 to $3,600 a year for children under 6 and $3,000 for children between the ages of 6 and 17 (couples making more than $150,000 will receive reduced benefits, and couples making over $400,000 none at all). And it increases subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, which could help millions of Americans obtain health insurance.
The bill does not, however, increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, as many progressives had hoped. The Senate passed the bill using reconciliation, a parliamentary manoeuvre that allows measures related to taxing and spending to pass with a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes required to break a filibuster. The Senate parliamentarian (the official who rules on procedure) judged that including the minimum-wage hike would have rendered the bill ineligible for reconciliation, so Democrats dropped it.
Bernie Sanders of Vermont, perhaps the Senate’s most left-wing member, tried to restore the minimum-wage increase, but the effort fell well short of the 60-vote threshold (seven Democrats opposed it, as did every Republican). But that does not mean that the federally mandated floor for the minimum wage will remain at $7.25 an hour, where it has been since 2009. Josh Hawley of Missouri, among the Senate’s Trumpiest Republicans, introduced a bill late last month that would require companies with annual revenues exceeding $1bn to pay their workers at least $15 an hour, while Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney, Republicans who sit at opposite ends of their party’s political spectrum, introduced a separate bill to increase the federal minimum wage to $10 per hour and index it to inflation. Neither of these measures will satisfy progressives, but both will leave a lot of people better-off, and both provide an opening for genuine bipartisan negotiation.
But any such negotiation will have to wait. Now the stimulus bill heads to the House, which is expected to pass it this week, and then to Mr Biden’s desk. Democrats want it signed into law by March 14th, when the federal unemployment insurance passed in last year’s stimulus bill runs out.
Some wonder why Republicans voted against such a broadly popular bill; others why Mr Biden, who campaigned in part on restoring bipartisan dealmaking, did not make more of an effort to win Republican support. The answer to both questions may lie in lessons the parties learned from the Affordable Care Act’s passage in 2009 and 2010. Republicans understood that the president gets credit when Washington works well and blame when it does not. Also, because Republican voters generally have a less favourable view of government than do Democrats, Republican politicians pay less of a political cost for gridlock and inaction. They also learned that with the right messages, a bill can grow less popular over time. So whatever the stimulus’s merit in practice, Republican political calculus rewards opposing its passage, and then highlighting the inevitable instances of waste and misallocation that occur when so much federal money heads out of the till at once.
For their part, Democrats spent months negotiating with Republicans over the Affordable Care Act, to no avail. Many concluded that Republicans were not really interested in legislative compromise; they were interested in dragging out the process, and then faking umbrage when bad-faith negotiations “failed”. The lesson learned? That bipartisanship is nice when it happens, but no substitute for passing legislation.
At the core of both lessons is the same disincentive to compromise. That would not be much of a problem for Mr Biden if both chambers could pass legislation with a simple majority vote, as happens in most other democracies. But the Senate requirement of a super-majority to break a filibuster bodes ill for HR1, the election-reform bill passed on a party-line House vote on March 5th. It will never win support from ten Republicans, since Republicans believe it will harm their chances at the ballot box. The barrier of the filibuster may also relegate passage of an infrastructure bill—Mr Biden’s next focus, one for which both parties recognise a need but remain divided over details—to reconciliation. Talk of bipartisanship from both parties looks likely to remain hollow.