Moderates build momentum: Why it took bipartisan lawmakers bucking ideologues for COVID relief negotiations to get serious

Sen. Mark Kelly sworn in. Credit: Official government Twitter account.

For months, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has gummed up COVID relief as workers, businesses, and the economy as a whole suffers from a pandemic intentionally left unchecked by the Trump administration. The House passed two versions of the HEROES Act, the second cutting its spending targets by a third, from $3 trillion to $2 trillion, in hopes of spurring the Senate to action before the election to no avail.

McConnell presented to the Senate bills that were both destined to fail sure to have plunged the economy into greater chaos by failing to provide the frontline of the COVID response - states - any assistance. In even clearer indication that McConnell did not want a comprehensive package to happen - at least not before the election - he actually actively urged the White House not to make a deal with Speaker Pelosi.

Then the election came and went. Joe Biden decisively beat Donald Trump and became the only challenger to beat an incumbent president who did not face a serious primary challenge or a formidable third party candidate in the general election.

And yet, COVID release appeared to be an immovable object as McConnell got busy confirming last-minute unqualified judges and refusing to publicly accept the reality that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be president and vice president come January 20.

Then, this week came and some things started to shake loose. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators and House members - part of the Problem Solvers Caucus - came together to announce a framework for emergency COVID relief that represented real and painful compromise from both sides but also a real path to make progress and send help to communities. The group of moderate and centrist lawmakers that included Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Mitt Romney (R-UT), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), among others, is a stopgap, emergency measure to last through the end of March, not a stimulus, as the lawmakers made clear on multiple occasions. But it does send $160 billion to the states and municipalities, add $300 in weekly unemployment benefits, and $25 billion to nutrition assistance for needy families.

Their announcement created much-needed movement. On the same day as the announcement, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer threw their support behind the framework as a basis for compromise. President-elect Joe Biden came out in favor of the compromise framework on Wednesday, and he and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris reiterated their support during an interview with Jake Tapper of CNN on Thursday. Notably on Wednesday, the Senate replaced a far right Republican with a moderate Democrat when Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona was sworn in, who also signaled his support. Although McConnell had initially appeared to reject the compromise measure, he also changed his tune after a phone call with Speaker Pelosi on Thursday - the first substantive call between the two legislative leaders since at least the election. After their call, McConnell was optimistic that "compromise is in reach."

To be entirely sure, the negotiations are ongoing and there is no final bill yet. Democrats are hopeful that a direct payment could still be part of the final package. But at least there are serious negotiations with a real compromise as the basis rather than a logjam the country appeared to be stuck in for the better part of this year.

Another key indication that wheels are turning and that this deal is serious is that the extreme edges of the party caucuses have begun to try to stop the compromise. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) - who twice lost the Democratic nomination for president on account of this far-left positions and persona - has been loudly denouncing the measure, framing the shortcomings from a liberal perspective as poison pills. On the other end of the horseshoe, House Freedom Caucus Chair Andy Biggs (R-AZ) motioned for the House to adjourn and leave town without passing any relief at all.

Generally speaking, when both extremes are loudly protesting something and pulling procedural maneuvers to adjourn their chambers to avoid voting on that something, it is usually because they are worried that a compromise that will give neither side everything they want is on track to passing.

There are plenty of ways to improve the measure, and there are plenty of good reasons not to like some of it. But the compromise the Problem Solvers presented got momentum because it not only recognized the critical components of emergency aid, but also the critical negotiating positions: Democrats (in my opinion, rightly) would not move from demanding that states receive the money they need to continue to be frontline responders, and Republicans would not move from their position (wrongly held, in my view) that some form of liability shield is required for businesses - including essential businesses - that open during the pandemic. So they made a trade, and the compromise measure includes both. 

That move represents three basic truths critical to both emergency response and the proper operation of government: that compromise is a needed and good thing, that breaking a logjam would take moderates and centrists asserting themselves and arresting power from the fringes, and that finding a way forward is more important than pleasing the ideological whims of one's colleagues.

As a country, we badly need COVID help right now, and we also badly need, for the sake of progress, to return the country to a legislative process that centers compromise rather than conflict.

Let's hope this is a new beginning.