You can’t begin to overstate what just happened in Washington, the place where good ideas go to die, if, in fact, anyone even notices them at all.
In the first critical piece of legislation of the Biden era, the Senate passed the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill resolution very early Friday morning. Even if you didn’t stay up all night for the entire vote-a-rama — I confess I didn’t, which may be why I missed John Hickenlooper’s questionable vote, in which he joined seven Democrats in favor of a non-binding resolution to deny stimulus checks to those in the country illegally, which, uh, is already the law — you probably know just how important this latest relief package is.
The resolution passed on a party-line 51-50 count with Vice President Kamala Harris, in her dual role as Senate president, casting the deciding vote at 5:30 Eastern time, which, in Mountain time, is sometime in the middle of the night. For those wondering, the $15 minimum wage proposal apparently didn’t make it through the night. And when the rest of the country woke up, it was to a terrible jobs report, with a gain of only 49,000 jobs in January.
The House was expected to take up the bill resolution Friday, and once it passes there, the resolution would still need to be written into a bill and then voted on again. That’s how Congress rolls. Of course it wouldn’t be rolling at all if Democrats hadn’t, with unwitting help from a certain former president, won both those Senate runoff elections in Georgia.
Still, this particular bill could never get through the Senate without resorting to what is known as reconciliation — here’s a link in case you’re among the 300 million people, almost certainly including Lauren Boebert, who don’t understand the parliamentary maneuver — which would seem like a blow to Biden’s promise to pursue bipartisanship.
It’s not. The urgency of this resolution didn’t allow for drawn-out vote chasing or for dealing with a GOP alternative coming in at a third of the price, meaning a third of the necessary funding. Biden’s speedy push is clearly the lesson of Barack Obama’s fruitless outreach to Republicans on, say, the 2009 stimulus package, but I expect Biden to try again for bipartisanship. And if that doesn’t work — here’s my guess, it won’t — you can bet that the present-day version of the filibuster won’t survive the session.
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But the thing to know about the $1.9 trillion budget resolution is that it is even more necessary than many understand. It’s not just the $1,400 check in the mail, which will get a smaller income cap than Biden had proposed. It’s not just the money for vaccination distribution or the money for schools reopening or the money for unemployment check enhancement or the money for the states and localities slammed by COVID or the money for struggling small businesses, also slammed by COVID, and all the rest.
It’s also about reducing child poverty by a remarkable 45%, according to several studies, and more for Black children, for Hispanic children, for Native American children. All that is required is a change in the way child tax credits are distributed and how much the credits are worth. The critical details are these — increasing the credit to $3,600 for children under the age of 6 and to $3,000 for those 6 to 17. And especially this: The entire benefit would be refundable, meaning even the poorest families would qualify for the entire credit.
According to a study by Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy, under the current law, more than a third of children do not qualify for the full Child Tax Credit, including 53% of African-American children and 50% of Hispanic children. The center has done a state-by-state breakdown of the issue. In statewide Colorado, which has one of the better scores, 27% of eligible children don’t qualify for the full credit. In the 3rd Congressional District, it’s 36%. In New Mexico, it’s 46%.
In a new bill, all eligible children would qualify for the full credit.
It’s a great step forward on child poverty — one of the great stains on America is that approximately one in seven children is officially poor — but why is it in the COVID relief bill? I asked Michael Bennet, who has been one of the key players in getting the child credit reform into the bill. Bennet and Sherrod Brown have been working together on similar packages for years, including the American Family Act. Last year, Cory Booker became a major advocate. And so did, well, Kamala Harris, which may explain part of the story. Another big backer, it turns out, is Nancy Pelosi.
“I saw this as a great opportunity,” Bennet told me by phone from Washington the other day. “I could see that it fits perfectly into the COVID bill. There are 25 million Americans who don’t get the full refund. For 50 years, the economy has been working only for those in the 10 percent. For everyone else, after you throw in inflation, incomes are basically flat, which is one reason they struggle with medical costs.
“Parents know how difficult it is to lift their kids out of poverty, and the problem is exacerbated by bad policy. We should have done this to begin with. It took COVID for people to finally realize the depth of the issue here and the need to do something ambitious.”
And in a move that Bennet called “breathtaking,” Mitt Romney just introduced a bill similar to Bennet’s, but which was even more generous for those kids under the age of 6 and calls for monthly checks instead of waiting for tax time. Bennet also favors monthly checks, and though he and Romney disagree on exactly how the increased costs of the program should be paid for, Bennet says he could envision an easy compromise.
The problem with getting anything passed through reconciliation, though, is that it sunsets after a year. But Bennet was more concerned about seeing the bill passed, with the child credit policy in place, than he was about keeping it.
“If you let this expire,” Bennet said, “it means you’re ready to double childhood poverty. I don’t know how many people are going to vote for that.”
And there is the backup plan, which would be to end, or at least significantly change, the Senate filibuster, which in the Mitch McConnell years has meant getting 60 votes to pass virtually any bill. That’s not how the filibuster used to work. It was used sparingly and not always with good intentions. It was of particular use for Dixiecrats to block civil rights legislation.
When I asked Bennet, who has written a book — “The Land of Flickering Lights: Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics” — about Senate dysfunction, what should be done about the filibuster in light of Biden’s ambitious plans, he said, “I’m well aware of Mitch McConnell’s obstruction. We’re going to have to figure out how to overcome that one way or the other.”
That’s for another day. In this case, reconciliation, with all its limitations, seems to be working. Bipartisanship, if it ever comes, will have to wait. As the pandemic continues to rage, waiting isn’t really an option.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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