Democrats and Republicans alike support the plan, in spite of its flaws

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GENERALLY, lawmakers want to support popular proposals. President Joe Biden’s $1.9trn stimulus, which Democrats in the House of Representatives hope to pass on February 26th, certainly qualifies. The bill enjoys broad support among Americans, including a plurality of Republicans. For voters, there is much to like: the package includes $1,400 cheques for most people (at a cost of $422bn), an extra $400 a week in unemployment-insurance payments ($246bn), as well as funds for reopening schools ($130bn) and distributing vaccines ($160bn). According to data compiled by Chris Warshaw, a political scientist at George Washington University, the spending bill is one of the most popular pieces of important legislation in three decades (see chart).

But sometimes popularity is not enough. Despite voter enthusiasm, Republican lawmakers oppose the bill. They say it is too big, poorly targeted and filled with liberal policies unrelated to the pandemic, such as an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. On January 31st a group of Republican senators released their own slimmed-down proposal, less than one-third the size of Mr Biden’s. After that plan was rejected, hope for a bipartisan deal quickly faded. This week Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, told reporters that she did not expect any of her Republican colleagues in the Senate to support the bill. “The administration has not indicated a willingness to come down from its $1.9trn figure,” Ms Collins said. “That’s a major obstacle.”

It is easy to dismiss Republicans’ complaints as obstructionism. But they have a point. A recent study by Opportunity Insights, a team of researchers at Harvard University, suggests that the one-off stimulus payments in Mr Biden’s bill—which would send $1,400 cheques to individuals earning up to $75,000 and $2,800 to couples making as much as $150,000—could be eliminated for higher earners without losing any fiscal firepower. The group found that when the last round of $600 stimulus cheques were mailed out in January, households earning less than $46,000 boosted their spending by around 7.9%, whereas those earning more than $78,000 squirrelled it away, spending just 0.2% more. If this pattern holds for Mr Biden’s stimulus, just $15bn of the $200bn sent to better-off Americans will be injected into the economy, rather than into savings accounts.

Mr Biden seems undeterred. In a speech at a Pfizer vaccine manufacturing plant near Kalamazoo, Michigan on February 19th the president defended the size of his stimulus plan, asking of his critics, “What would they have me cut?” Senate Republicans will no doubt have suggestions in the coming days. With 70% of the public behind him, Mr Biden may not have to listen.