For Biden, urgency will matter more than unity
"Sure, we all want to hope that Washington will suddenly work differently, especially since President Biden is someone who — really, truly, deeply — loves to work with Republicans when he can. In using his inaugural address to implore Americans to “stop the shouting and lower the temperature,” he didn’t have to add his trademark “I mean that sincerely” for listeners to realize that, yes, he meant that sincerely.
But it took barely 24 hours for partisan obstacles to pop up as if we were watching a movie called “Republican Obstruction, the Sequel.”
Senate Democrats won their 49th and 50th seats in Georgia’s two runoff elections earlier this month, which gave them the majority thanks to Vice President Harris’s tie-breaking vote. This meant that the Senate had to be reorganized to recognize the shift in control. The outlines of an organizing resolution were already there from the last time the Senate was split 50-50, in 2001.
That didn’t stop Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) from balking. He demanded that Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) promise that Senate Democrats wouldn’t challenge the filibuster rule for the next two years. The current filibuster rule means that most bills need 60 votes to pass. Essentially, McConnell was telling Democrats to give up any power they might have to force action if the GOP persistently blocked Biden’s initiatives.
It is a recipe for unrestrained minority rule.
Even Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who wants to keep the filibuster as is, backed Schumer’s effort to maintain the “leverage” that the threat of weakening or abolishing it could offer.
And it wasn’t just McConnell underscoring how hard it will be for Biden to bring bipartisan bliss to Washington. Two Republican senators whom Democrats are counting on for at least some help over the next few years, Utah’s Mitt Romney and Maine’s Susan Collins, quickly announced their resistance to Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic rescue and stimulus package.
And just in case you wondered: Donald Trump may no longer be in the White House, but nativism is alive and well in the GOP. Thus the know-nothing reaction of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to Biden’s immigration reform proposal. McCarthy pronounced himself “disappointed to see within hours of assuming office, the new administration was more interested in helping illegal immigrants than helping our own citizens.”
Not exactly the “love and healing” Biden extolled.
So, as Biden would say, here’s the deal: He and his party should indeed make every effort to negotiate with Republicans to win what support they can get. Bipartisanship is great when it works, so it’s constructive that Brian Deese, the head of the White House’s National Economic Council, is meeting with moderates and moderate conservatives, including Collins and Romney, to try to find common ground. What Democrats can’t afford, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in an interview, is the “long drawn-out process” that characterized the party’s approach during the early Obama years on both economic stimulus and health care.
The 2009-2010 example comes up again and again in conversations with Democrats. “We have to learn from that experience in an even more urgent crisis,” Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), the assistant House speaker, said in an interview.
This means being willing to move quickly to what is known as the reconciliation process, which would allow passage of economic relief on a simple Senate majority.
“We should give Senate Republicans a very short amount of time to signal if they want to be partners in moving the country forward, or if they intend to be obstructionists,” Van Hollen said. “And the early signaling is that they are reverting to their obstructionist mode.”
Reconciliation rules are largely limited to bills involving money. Eventually, Democrats will have to take on the filibuster itself. They might do this piece by piece if obstruction prevails on particular bills, notably democracy reform efforts.
Already, conservatives are preparing to characterize any remotely progressive proposals from Biden as evidence that he is moving “hard left.” Moderate Democrats should not take the bait — and the early signs are that they won’t.
Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, one of the House’s leading middle-of-the-road Democrats, warns that since Republicans offer few policies with broad popular support — “tax cuts for the rich are not particularly popular” — they will “have to reframe popular policies [offered by Democrats] as dangerous or socialist.”
The truth is that while Biden’s program is ambitious, there is nothing remotely radical in what he wants to do. The country will judge him less by whether Republicans say nice things about his program than by what he gets done.
Himes defined the stakes clearly. “In a moment of crisis,” he told me, “if we don’t deliver a reasonable proportion of our agenda, we get crushed.”