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Virus Aid Plan 1st Biden, Congress Test01/28 06:27

   More than a sweeping national rescue plan, President Joe Biden's $1.9 
trillion COVID-19 relief package presents a first political test --- of his new 
administration, of Democratic control of Congress and of the role of 
Republicans in a post-Trump political landscape.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- More than a sweeping national rescue plan, President Joe 
Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package presents a first political test 
--- of his new administration, of Democratic control of Congress and of the 
role of Republicans in a post-Trump political landscape.

   For Biden, the outcome will test the strength of his presidency, his "unity" 
agenda and whether, after decades of deal-making, he can still negotiate a hard 
bargain and drive it into law.

   For House and Senate Democrats with the full sweep of power for the first 
time in a decade, drafting, amending and passing a recovery package will show 
Americans if they can lead the government through crisis.

   And for Republicans, the final roll-call vote will indicate whether they 
plan to be constructive advocates of the minority party or just-say-no 
obstructionists without former President Donald Trump.

   "This is an opportunity for the Democrats to put forward the things that 
people went to the polls, put them in office to do," said Rashad Robinson, 
president of Color of Change, an advocacy organization.

   "It's just really hard to speculate about failure," he said. "It's something 
that I think, you know, we really can't face. So many of our communities are in 
dire straits."

   The immediate challenge is whether Biden will be able to muscle bipartisan 
support in Congress, achieving a type of unifying moment he aspired to in his 
inaugural address, or if opposition from Republicans or even some from his own 
party will leave him few options but to jam it into law on a party-line vote.

   The days and weeks ahead, against the backdrop of Trump's impeachment trial 
on a charge of inciting an insurrection with the U.S. Capitol siege, will set 
the tone, tenor and parameters of what will be possible in Washington.

   Success would give Biden a signature accomplishment in his first 100 days in 
office, unleashing $400 billion to expand vaccinations and to reopen schools, 
$1,400 direct payments to households, and other priorities, including a gradual 
increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. It would establish his 
presidency as a force to be reckoned with.

   Failure to deliver a deal that has widespread political and popular support 
would show the limits of Democrats' reach, despite unified party control, and 
the power of Republicans poised to capitalize on any early stumbles in their 
efforts to regain control.

   "What the president has proposed and what we are working on in support is to 
robustly and quickly help everyone," said Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of 
Michigan, a member of party leadership.

   "Everybody's lives have been turned upside-down, let's face it," she said. 
"We're going to work our hearts out to get that done."

   With an evenly divided Senate and a slim majority in the House, Democrats 
are operating as if they know they are borrowed time, rushing into the Biden 
era as if there is not a minute to waste.

   Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is pushing ahead next week, 
laying the groundwork for a go-it-alone approach that could allow passage with 
a simple 51-vote majority, rather than the 60-vote threshold that's typically 
needed to advance legislation, under a reconciliation package that is being 
prepared by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the incoming Budget Committee chair.

   In the House, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., announced abrupt schedule 
changes to work on the COVID-19 package before the March expiration of vital 
lifelines for Americans, including unemployment assistance and an eviction 

   There's a bit of a carrot-stick strategy at work --- the White House meeting 
privately with bipartisan groups of lawmakers to develop a compromise proposal 
that could win robust support, while congressional Democrats warn they will 
proceed with or without Republicans.

   Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is leading a bipartisan group with Sen. Joe 
Manchin, D-W.Va., is talking to the White House about an alternative package 
that even some Democrats would prefer.

   "I think any talk of budget reconciliation as a tool at this stage is off 
the mark," said Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, who is part of a similar bipartisan 
effort in the House.

   The White House has launched a full push deploying Biden, Vice President 
Kamala Harris and other top officials to talk with lawmakers while trying to 
gather public support in talks with a wide range of civic and economic leaders.

   "This isn't just about speaking to elected officials --- it's about speaking 
to the country," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

   The first 100 days of a new administration and Congress are peak 
opportunities for legislating and precious moments to accomplish big things 
before midterm elections and campaigns draw partisan battle lines.

   The Democrats' hold on the Senate, split 50-50 with Harris able to cast a 
tie-breaking vote, is particularly fragile. The reality hit home when 
80-year-old Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was taken to a hospital late Tuesday 
after presiding over the start of the impeachment trial. He returned to work 
Wednesday, but for several hours, the Democrats' brand-new Senate majority 
looked to be at stake.

   Biden was just coming into office as vice president amid the 2009 financial 
crisis, and the battles from that political era are all too familiar.

   The Obama administration and a Democratic-held Congress swiftly proposed the 
nearly $800 billion American Recovery and Relief Act.

   Around that time, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., vowed to 
make President Barack Obama a one-term president, and House Republicans 
privately decided to unanimously oppose the recovery bill. It ended up passing 
with hardly any GOP votes.

   The Republicans later campaigned against the aid, deriding it as 
big-government overreach, though many economists estimated the package should 
have been bigger as economic conditions worsened.

   "Nobody thinks our bipartisan work fighting this pandemic is completely 
finished," McConnell said this week.

   But McConnell said Biden's sweeping plan "misses the mark." Instead, he 
said, "Any further action should be smart and targeted, not just an imprecise 
deluge of borrowed money that would direct huge sums toward those who don't 
need it."

   Democrats appear willing to negotiate but unwilling to spend precious 
political capital waiting to broker deals with Republicans that may or may not 

   Just as McConnell used the budget tool to pass the Trump tax cuts on a 
simple 51-vote procedure, Democrats are poised to do the same for Biden's first 
legislative priority.

   "We must not repeat the mistakes of 2008-2009," Schumer said Wednesday.

   "We want to work with our Republican colleagues if we can," he said. "But if 
our Republican colleagues decide to oppose the necessary, robust COVID-relief, 
we will have to move forward without them."

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