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Republicans put their party’s past on the line by voting against pandemic relief.

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 Republicans put their party's past on the line by voting against pandemic relief.

 

All but three Republicans voted against the huge stimulus package intended to rescue millions of Americans from financial catastrophe when the nation’s financial system was on the verge of collapse.

It was early 2009, just weeks after Vice President Joe Biden was sworn in, and the vote signaled the start of a new period of partisan gridlock in Congress. It was also the first step back to political control for beleaguered Republicans after a disastrous referendum.

Democrats voted alone to stabilize the economy, and two years later, a Republican Party united only by its adamant opposition to Barack Obama’s presidency took control of the House.

The GOP is betting that history will repeat itself just weeks into Biden’s presidency.

210 House Republicans joined two Democrats in voting against a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that would send most Americans $1,400 checks and hundreds of billions more to help open schools, revive struggling businesses, and provide financial support to state and local governments. In the coming weeks, Senate Republicans are likely to reject a similar bill, claiming that it is not based enough on the pandemic. However, the bill could still pass with near-unanimous Democratic support.

It’s far too early to assess the political implications of the Biden administration’s first big legislative battle. However, as the country continues to rebound from the worst health and financial crises in decades, strategists from both parties accept that Republicans do not expect the same electoral success this time around as they did in 2009.

“I suspect the Republicans’ misreading here is that it is the same, or that they can actually oppose it with no consequences,” said John Anzalone, the Biden campaign’s chief pollster. “It’s a whole different world.”

Republicans now have the responsibility of explicitly articulating their opposition, according to veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz, a job made more complicated by former President Donald Trump’s high-profile battle against the Republican establishment.

“The lawmaker who determines the law wins this battle,” Luntz said. “This may be the most consequential vote of 2021.”

There are many reasons to conclude that politics has changed since Republicans last united against a large stimulus package, not the least of which is Trump’s pervasiveness within the party.

Around the same time, the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic’s economic destruction and instability dwarfs that of the 2008 financial crisis. The Great Recession cost the United States roughly 9 million jobs at its peak, compared to 22 million jobs lost to the coronavirus. Nearly 10 million jobs have been lost in the United States a year since the pandemic started, more than 20 million children have been forced to drop out of school, half a million people have died, and 100,000 businesses are feared to be permanently closed.

According to polls, a vast majority of voters favor the Democrats’ pandemic relief initiative, including a sizable number of Republicans. And the corporate sector, as well as state and local officials from both parties, is pleading for assistance.

On the eve of the House vote, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt signed a letter with 31 other Republican mayors urging both parties to pass the bill.

Holt told The Associated Press that “the big part of the bill that applies to cities is sorely needed,” citing pandemic-related cuts to his city’s police and fire departments. “I don’t know of any blue or red state or blue or red city that hasn’t encountered a revenue deficit as a result of COVID-19.”

In another deep-red state, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice defied Washington Republicans by saying the latest stimulus package should be “big or go home” for the region.

During a Friday coronavirus briefing, the Republican governor said, “We tried to underspend and undersize what was really needed to get over the top of the mountain.” “You have a lot of people in this country who are in a lot of pain.”

Despite this, no Republican in Washington voted early Saturday to endorse the $1.9 trillion stimulus package.

Just two moderate Democrats, Maine’s Jared Golden and Oregon’s Kurt Schrader, crossed party lines to vote against the bill, which eventually passed 219-212.

“The swamp is back,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced shortly before the final vote, condemning extraordinary “non-COVID waste” and a “blue state bailout.”

McCarthy said, “Most states are not in financial distress.”

The US Chamber of Commerce, which has historically been a Republican ally, has refused to endorse or condemn the GOP stance. The chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, Neil Bradley, said a “targeted, timely, and temporary” rescue package is required.

Bradley told The Associated Press, “There’s a lot to like in the proposal.” “However, there are several elements that fail the test of being targeted, timely, and temporary.”

The chamber, like House Republicans, rejects Democratic attempts to increase the federal minimum wage from its current $7.25 floor to $15 by 2025. While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is proposing a clause that would penalize large corporations that do not pay employees at least $15 an hour, the Senate parliamentarian ruled Thursday that the progressive priority could not be included in the Senate version of the bill.

Senate Republicans are likely to vote against the final bill, whether or not the minimum wage clause is included.

While the GOP’s policy could have electoral implications in next year’s midterm elections, Republican officials privately confess that they are more worried about the raging intra-party feud pitting Trump and his backers against leading establishment Republicans including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican No. 3 Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

This divide is being played out this weekend in Orlando, Florida, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Trump is expected to criticize his party’s establishment on Sunday, his first public appearance since leaving the White House.

Another CPAC speaker, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2024, emphasized the importance of preserving party unity going forward.

“I think Republicans need to understand that what brings us together right now is the Biden-Harris administration’s left-wing agenda,” Cotton told The Associated Press. “The more we concentrate on what they’re trying to do in Congress and through the president’s executive orders, the more united we’ll become and the more public opinion will turn in our favor.”

The conservative political powerhouse Americans for Prosperity opposes the Democratic-backed package as well, but its president, Tim Phillips, says it’s uncertain if the GOP policy would be enough to put the profoundly divided Republican Party together.

“This feels a lot like 2009,” Phillips said, “when the Republican caucus and the activist base were brought together in a way that perhaps nothing else could have.” “It worked well for them in 2009.” I’m not sure it will happen this time.”

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