Biden White House memo reveals strategy to pressure Republicans on COVID relief

As Biden struggles to earn Republican support, advisers signal new messaging.

February 17, 2021, 3:30 PM

A new internal White House memo gives a behind-the-scenes look into the administration's strategy to up the pressure on Republicans to get on board with President Joe Biden’s costly COVID relief proposal, arguing GOP opposition to his American Rescue Plan is damaging the GOP and that "this is not a moment in the country when obstructionism is rewarded."

"There seems to be a growing conventional wisdom that it is either politically smart – or, at worst, cost-free – for the GOP to adopt an obstructionist, partisan, base-politics posture,” White House Senior Adviser Mike Donilon wrote in the memo to White House senior staff, first reported by Axios and obtained by ABC News.

“However, there is lots of evidence that the opposite is true: that it isn’t politically smart for the GOP to be going down this road. And rather than being cost-free, this approach has been quite damaging to them."

President Joe Biden speaks briefly to reporters on his way to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Feb. 16, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Throughout his campaign for the White House, Biden repeatedly promised to work across the aisle to earn Republican support for his policies. But in his first legislative endeavor, no congressional Republicans yet have signaled support for the nearly $2 trillion plan, despite ongoing conversations between the Biden Administration and some Senate Republicans.

The strategy outlined in Donilon's memo has become a key part of the administration's public messaging.

Officials have repeatedly pointed to a majority of Americans, including some Republicans, who support the policy in a slate of recent polls, including an ABC News/Ipsos poll showing 67% of Americans approve of Biden's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Obviously, Republicans in Congress will have to make their own choice about whether they support the final package. It is still working its way through Congress but the vast majority of the public support it, including the vast majority of most members’ constituents, so it's really a question for them,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.

Michael C. Donilon, Counselor to Vice President Joe Biden, attends an event in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, June 5, 2013.
Charles Dharapak/AP, FILE

In the memo, Donilon elaborates on how to make the argument to Republicans that if they fail to get on board with the plan, it could come at cost.

"By opposing the American Rescue Plan, the GOP is putting itself at odds with a rescue package supported overwhelmingly by the American people," Donilon argued. "Opposition to the ARP isn’t political smart or cost-free – it’s politically isolating."

The White House has repeatedly stressed Biden’s willingness to negotiate on the plan, but not at the expense of passing the bill before benefits from the previous COVID-19 relief bill expire on March 14.

With a slim majority in the Senate, Democrats can pass the measure without bipartisan support. But Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who met with Biden in the Oval Office last week, warned going it alone could also bring political perils.

"I said to him, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. And I said that I thought that it was good for his agenda over the next four years if he started out by getting some Republicans on board in a bipartisan way. If you just jammed it down your throat, if it's a take-it-or-leave-it Democratic bill ... it's not going to be as easy to get things done, like on infrastructure or rebuilding our economy," Hogan said Sunday.