It could be a story from the Washington of half a century ago: A Democratic president proposes a large infrastructure bill and moderate members of both parties join together in months-long negotiation to forge a compromise that eventually passes the Republican-controlled Senate by a vote of 69-30, including a yea vote from the Senate Majority Leader.
Have we entered an era of resurgent bipartisanship? Hardly. Republicans, and above all the momentarily conciliatory Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are playing a longer game. That’s something that less shrewdly Machiavellian Washington hands fail to grasp at their peril.
Former president Donald Trump definitely counts as one of those too addled to follow along. In a statement lashing out at McConnell, he associated himself with those who will never “understand why” the majority leader “allowed this non-infrastructure bill to be passed.” Why give Joe Biden a victory? As Trump sees it, that’s the only thing at stake in Congress.
Yet McConnell has his eyes on 2022 and 2024. Yes, Biden will get a victory from passage of the first infrastructure bill. But Republicans will also get credit for their reasonableness, while also benefitting from hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending for their states on projects many of them find minimally objectionable. That credit can then be cashed in when the party votes in lockstep opposition to the second, much larger budget bill that began to be debated almost immediately and will almost certainly pass (if it does pass) on a strictly party-line vote. McConnell has already taken to describing this second bill as a “reckless, partisan taxing and spending spree” that will “push costs even higher for families” and “shatter President Biden’s promise of no middle-class tax hikes.”
Then there are future votes on other Biden administration priorities that Republicans strongly oppose, including protections for voting rights and renewed efforts to reform or eliminate the filibuster. McConnell would have faced much stronger political headwinds, including justified accusations of full-bore obstructionism, had he simply refused to play ball on anything the White House wants to get done. Much better to strike a pose of magnanimity on the least bad of several options in order to strengthen his hand down the road — which means the 2022 midterm elections, and ultimately the presidential contest to follow.
“Hey, we worked with the Democrats where we could, but too often their spending was downright irresponsible. Just look at all those party-line votes.” The GOP as the party of reasonableness and responsibility? That’s Mitch McConnell’s play, and it’s liable to be pretty politically effective.
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