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Pandemic relief package isn't just Biden's

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A few comments about the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill, which passed the Senate over the weekend and now heads back to the House of Representatives for what's expected to be a quick stop on the way to President Joe Biden's desk:

Democrats passed it without any Republican votes. Does that mean bipartisanship is dead? Of course not. Just a few weeks ago, the waning 116th Congress passed the last in its series of major pandemic relief bills, all of which (as Republican senators were quick to remind everyone during the floor debate) passed with large bipartisan majorities.

What is true is that when a party has the votes, it takes the votes. And given the partisan polarization in Congress, with every Democrat more liberal than the least conservative Republican, during periods of unified government the easiest way to get to 218 votes in the House and 51 in the Senate is by crafting a package that the entire majority party can support. At least, that's what works when simple majorities are enough under the rules. When that's not the case — when 60 votes are needed to defeat a Senate filibuster — parties will adjust course to attempt to pick up the necessary votes. Similarly, we can expect bipartisanship to return when divided government makes it necessary. Context matters.

Another conclusion that some pundits reached over the weekend was that Biden has been, once again, underrated. That may be correct, but it also is another example of how journalists treat legislating (and everything else in Washington) as primarily about the presidency.

To be sure, by all accounts the White House did take a lead role in putting together this relief package, which is a return to the way things were normally done before the presidency of Donald Trump. But Congress passed the relief bill, and it's tempting to overlook just how easy it would have been for things to go wrong, especially in the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi makes it all look inevitable, but it most definitely is not — as anyone who remembers the frequent internal party fights under Republican Speakers Paul Ryan or John Boehner or, for that matter, Democrat Tom Foley.

Speaking of bipartisanship: For those who believe that the U.S. economic response to the pandemic has been strong, much of the credit goes to the speaker. The House response last year was quick and it was massive, and the Democratic majority chose to seek common ground with Republicans, neither holding out for Democratic priorities that Republicans would never accept nor refusing to act in an effort to make the Republican president look bad. This isn't new; the first time that Pelosi was speaker, she (and in that case a Democratic Senate majority) worked with President George W. Bush's administration to pass key legislation to address the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. Pelosi is certainly a partisan figure — there's no question about that at all — but in two national crises, she responded to what she saw as the needs of the country.

One more point. Some commentators have argued that for all the attention to the presidential primaries last year, it turned out that Democratic victories in the two Georgia Senate elections in January were what really mattered. That's not wrong, but it's not the whole story. It's true that the bill that's being passed now wouldn't have been significantly more pleasing to the most liberal Democrats had Senator Bernie Sanders or Senator Elizabeth Warren been nominated; the key limiting factor was what was acceptable to the least liberal Democratic lawmakers, notably Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and his counterparts in the House.

But nominations define parties. And the nomination process in 2020, in both presidential and congressional races, defined a Democratic Party that's become increasingly liberal. We saw that in Georgia, where both new Democratic senators are mainstream liberals, not the moderate-to-conservative types whom southern Democrats used to nominate 10 to 30 years ago. And we saw it in the presidential nomination process, too, where the candidates who explicitly wanted to make the party more moderate (such as former Montana Governor Steve Bullock) had no support at all.

Biden, remember, didn't run as a moderate; his specialty has always been to find the exact middle of the Democratic Party. And so the biggest chunk of credit (or blame) for the relief bill shouldn't go to Biden or Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, but to the entire Democratic coalition.

1. Andrew Rudalevige at the Monkey Cage on Biden and war powers.

2. Jamelle Bouie on voting rights in the 19th century and now.

3. Harry Enten on 2020 voter turnout and the Republicans.

4. Sarah Kliff on the health-care portions of the relief bill.

5. Margaret Sullivan on reporting on the vaccines.

6. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Faye Flam on why you should get whichever vaccine you can.

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