Letters From an American



March 4, 2021

This afternoon, the Senate voted to take up the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan recently passed by the House. The vote was 51 to 50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.

Republicans have vowed to slow the passage of the bill. As soon as it passed, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) insisted on having all 628 pages of the bill read aloud, which the Senate clerks are currently doing at a rapid clip to a chamber that emptied of everyone but the presiding Senator (a Democrat), and one Republican (to insist on the process), almost immediately after the clerks began to read.

Once the reading is over, there will be up to 20 hours of debate on the bill, and then, led by Johnson, Republicans plan to offer hundreds of amendments to slow the bill down. Nonetheless, Democrats expect to pass the measure through the Senate by the end of next week. This will send it back to the House in time for any changes to be adjusted and to go to Biden to sign it into law before extended unemployment benefits run out on March 14.

For the bill to pass the Senate, Democrats have had to strip from it the establishment of a $15 an hour minimum wage phased in by 2025 and have had to target more tightly the $1400 stimulus payments. They also limited how $10 billion of the $350 billion in state and local aid could be spent, limiting that money to infrastructure needs and establishing that none of the state or local aid could be used to pay down pension costs or reduce future taxes.

The intense opposition to this measure from Republican lawmakers illustrates a gulf between them and ordinary Americans, including their own voters. The American Rescue Plan is wildly popular. A poll from Morning Consult says that a whopping 77% of Americans support the bill, including 59% of Republicans, making it one of the most popular pieces of major legislation in American history. But Republican lawmakers oppose it, seeming to recognize that it is a return to an idea they utterly reject: that the government has a role to play in regulating business, providing a basic social safety net, and promoting infrastructure.

This was the idea at the heart of the so-called “liberal consensus,” embraced by both parties until the 1980s, when Republicans began to call for slashing the federal government and turning its functions over to private industry. If Democrats implement the measure and it is popular, Republicans will have a hard time convincing people to turn back to the tax cuts that are at the heart of their program.

Republican lawmakers and right-wing personalities on the Fox News Channel are criticizing specific items in the bill, but more than that, they are flooding the airwaves with warnings that Democrats are trying to “cancel” American culture. They are, Republicans charge, erasing the works of popular children’s book author Theodor Geisel, more popularly known as Dr. Seuss (although he also wrote as Theo LeSieg), in an attempt to control what Americans think and say.

The real story is pretty straightforward: Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which is a division of book publishers Random House Children’s Books and Penguin Random House, announced that it would stop printing six of Geisel’s lesser-known works—“McElligot’s Pool,” for example—because of their racist imagery. It will continue to publish the rest of Dr. Seuss’s books, as usual.

For the last three days, the Fox News Channel has highlighted what personality Tucker Carlson says is an attempt by “the people in charge” to get rid of “a very specific kind of midcentury American culture, a culture that championed meritocracy and color blindness and the superiority of individual achievement.” Matthew Gertz of Media Matters counted 139 mentions of “Seuss” on the FNC on Tuesday, the day Dr. Seuss Enterprises made the announcement, over both “news” and “opinion” shows on all but three hours of the day’s programming. The next day had 59 mentions of the story, at one point over a chyron that read “IT’S NOW A PROBLEM TO TREAT PEOPLE AS INDIVIDUALS,” and the outrage continued today.

Another popular bill in Congress provides even more of a problem for Republicans than the American Rescue Plan. It is H.R. 1, the sweeping elections and government ethics bill that passed the House late Wednesday night.

The measure streamlines voter registration with automatic and same-day voter registration. It restores the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted in 2013 by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision. It allows early voting and mail-in voting. It curbs dark money in elections, and ends partisan gerrymandering by requiring independent redistricting commissions to draw state districts. It gets rid of insecure paperless voting. And it requires disclosures of presidential tax returns, gets rid of loose rules about congressional conflicts of interest, and requires the Supreme Court to create its own ethics code.

This measure is supported by a wide range of organizations interested in voting rights, including the League of Women Voters, which “strongly” supports it. President Biden has endorsed the measure, saying, “The right to vote is sacred and fundamental—it is the right from which all of our other rights as Americans spring. This landmark legislation is urgently needed to protect that right.”

But Republicans are well aware that they can no longer win elections without voter suppression. As an attorney for the Republican Party in Arizona told the Supreme Court on Tuesday, a measure making it easier to vote “puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats. Politics is a zero-sum game…. It’s the difference between winning an election 50 to 49 and losing an election 51 to 50.” Using former president Trump’s lies about the 2020 election as justification, Republican legislators in 43 states have recently introduced bills to restrict the vote.

The rhetoric of Republican lawmakers about this bill is, as the Washington Post Editorial Board puts it, “apocalyptic.” Former vice president Mike Pence, who has been staying out of sight since Biden’s inaugural, emerged this week to write a piece in The Heritage Foundation’s blog The Daily Signal calling the measure “unconstitutional, reckless, and anti-democratic.”

The measure passed the House but may well not pass the Senate, where it would be susceptible to a filibuster, the process by which opponents of a bill can require that it receive 60, rather than simply 51, votes to pass.

The bill has “a noble purpose,” wrote the Washington Post, “making it easier for Americans to vote and encouraging the government to be more responsive to the people. Republicans’ apocalyptic rhetoric is so wildly disproportionate to the contents of the bill, one must wonder what they are really worried about…. Are they that afraid of democracy?”

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.