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The Blue Dog Democrats Have a Point

Moderates want the White House to abandon its current approach to Covid-19 relief. And they make a good case.

Representative Stephanie Murphy of Florida smiles at an event in New York in 2017.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images
Representative Stephanie Murphy of Florida in 2017

In yet another sign of how different this era is from the last time Democrats ran a unified government, a group of self-described “pragmatic” (read: conservative) Blue Dog Democrats wrote a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to rethink his legislative agenda, and it barely registered in the national political press. Yes, NBC News covered it, but for the most part, the letter landed with a thud; not one single major newspaper published the typical “Democrats in disarray” analysis.

This is a shame, because for once, I actually agree with the Blue Dogs. At least, they are making a very reasonable request, and it’s hard to find fault with their logic.

Basically, the members who drafted the letter (it was first signed by Representatives Stephanie Murphy of Florida, Tom O’Halleran of Arizona, Ed Case of Hawaii, and Kurt Schrader of Oregon) take issue with how Biden, in concert with congressional leadership, has decided to package his administration’s entire Covid-19 relief agenda into one large bill to be passed through the budget reconciliation process, which allows certain types of bills to avoid Senate filibusters.

Trust me, this is usually the moment when I would begin pointing out the hints of disingenuousness or checking for signs of ulterior motives, but it is honestly worth reading the letter in full. Even though it was produced by a crowd of politicians known for inventing reasons not to support something, the letter does not feature threats to withhold support for the entire economic rescue package. It makes, instead, a very reasonable argument: Strip out the portions of the proposal designed to help with production and distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine and pass them on their own as soon as possible.

The logic behind this request is very simple: The reconciliation process will take a long time, and vaccine production and distribution should be done as quickly as possible. As the Blue Dogs put it in their letter, “We believe a standalone vaccine bill would pass the House, obtain at least 60 votes in the Senate, and could be signed into law by President Biden this month.” The full reconciliation bill, meanwhile, is supposed to be completed by mid-March—and it is very possible that it could slip into April.

Now, the Blue Dog proposal is based on the idea that there would be 10 Republican votes for a bill focused on vaccine production and distribution. It is certainly possible, if not certain, that that many Republicans would sign onto the proposal. But the Democrats who wrote the letter actually do have a fallback plan should the GOP prove recalcitrant, writing, “If we are mistaken, and Senate Republicans block this vaccine-targeted legislation, we can simply continue to include its provisions in the reconciliation bill. We will be in the exact same position as the reconciliation process moves forward, and no time will be lost.”

Once again, this is reasonable and hard to argue with. There’s no good reason to wait more than a month to speed up the vaccine pipeline if a bipartisan deal to do so could be had now, without sacrificing the rest of the package later.

One notable thing about this approach is that, prior to the Blue Dogs advocating for it, there was already support for something similar on the left end of the spectrum. The American Prospect’s David Dayen spent January advocating for a “checks and shots strategy,” in which Congress would immediately move on vaccinations and the promised (and hugely popular) stimulus checks, to get those things out to Americans as quickly as possible, before moving on to pass the rest of Biden’s “Rescue Plan” through the lengthy reconciliation process that we are currently watching unfold. I was convinced then. And a similar argument from the most conservative Democratic members of Congress makes just as much sense.

Now, obviously, shots with no checks is not quite the same deal. And the Biden administration, without action from Congress, now says it is using the Defense Production Act to scale up production of the vaccine. One can certainly doubt the sincerity of the conservative Democrats who signed the letter: If the Blue Dogs traditionally operated out of political cowardice or fealty to business interests (or the latter masquerading as the former), today’s Problem Solvers (to name a related group of self-appointed pragmatic moderates) seem to act much more cynically, aiming specifically to undermine the left rather than simply to protect their own members from tricky votes.

But I see little sign of that tendency here, and a good idea is a good idea. If the White House’s fear is that Democratic support for the package is so tenuous that separating out two of the most popular and urgent pieces of the proposal will doom the rest of it later on (in what would still be a straight party-line reconciliation vote), it’s honestly hard to see how the administration plans to advance any other part of its first-term legislative agenda once this bill is passed. Biden (along with the two Democrats from Georgia who tilted the balance of the Senate) promised immediate relief. “Checks and shots now” would have been ideal. “Shots now” is still better than waiting.