Opinion: Republicans pulled a bait-and-switch on voting rights. Democrats can’t let them do it on infrastructure.
“In March, the House passed the voting rights bill known as the For the People Act. Since then, it has languished in the Senate, while Sen. Joe Manchin III (D.-W.Va.) insisted on finding 10 Republican votes for a filibuster-proof deal. GOP senators praised his fervor for compromise — only to turn around last week and come out united against his proposal. After weeks of hope that dedication to a bipartisan process would prove productive, Democrats have been left with nothing. As Congress turns to infrastructure, they can’t let the same farce play out again.
On the surface, the prospects for compromise in this area look rosy. The group of senators negotiating a deal has swelled from 10 to 21, including 11 Republicans. But big obstacles remain. The $579 billion of new infrastructure spending in the group’s current framework is hundreds of billions short of the White House’s proposal. And even if the sides come to an agreement, there’s no agreement yet on how to pay for it.
Worse, Republicans are laying the groundwork to pull out in the future.
For weeks now, Democrats have been open about a two-track approach: pass what they can on a bipartisan, filibuster-proof basis, and use the reconciliation process to push remaining priorities through with 50 votes. The 11 Republicans who joined in the effort did so knowing Democrats are strongly considering that approach.
But on “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said such a tactic would “be very problematic. … I think you’ll get a lot of pushback from every Republican.” On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd didn’t ask Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) directly about the reconciliation path, but Portman did say that a bill would be much more likely to pass by “growing the vote from the middle out.” In other words: Democrats shouldn’t even try to pursue their goals through every avenue possible, lest Republicans punish them even in an area where both parties ostensibly agree.
What makes this view especially curious is that both Graham and Portman argued that the Democrats’ reconciliation package, as Graham put it, “is not remotely related to what’s traditionally been called infrastructure.“ By their own logic, the infrastructure deal’s prospects depend on whether Democrats advance a non-infrastructure bill. This isn’t honest negotiation; it’s “our way or the highway,” with every expectation that at some point the negotiation will fall apart.
Stringing along credulous Democrats isn’t anything new for Republicans. Besides the bait-and-switch with Manchin, there were a host of these tricks pulled during Barack Obama’s presidency. In 2009, for example, Obama let Democratic moderates spend months trying to persuade Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) to support a health-care overhaul. Summer came and went, and still Grassley wasn’t on board. Finally, Obama himself asked Grassley whether there were any changes that could bring him around. “I guess not, Mr. President,” Grassley replied.
If this would-be deal is going to be another farce, let’s at least make it a short one. The White House should be firm but fair, telling the negotiating senators to establish by the end of the week whether there are 60 votes for any set of funding sources for the deal. And Republicans don’t get to decree what laws a Democratic Congress and White House pursue and enact. If GOP senators won’t promise to hold to a deal regardless of any reconciliation votes, Democrats should move on.
It’s in all Democrats’ interest to determine as quickly as possible whether this compromise is real. In policy terms, the sooner money can start going out the door, the better. The billions in new spending in the compromise are substantial, but not nearly enough to repair all our crumbling infrastructure. Millions of Americans will benefit from expanded child-care and home health-care programs. And as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Todd, “We have a disaster in terms of climate impacting this country right now. How do you go forward right now in this moment in history and not address the terrible climate crisis that we face?”
Then there are the political benefits. The 17 months until the midterms may feel like a long time, but it’s shorter than you think. Midterms tend to follow voters’ perceptions of the president. The more successful Biden is in passing these broadly popular proposals — including the corporate tax increase, child-care assistance and so on — the better the election fundamentals will look for these Democratic senators, especially the vulnerable moderates backing the compromise. But the longer this drags on into Biden’s presidency, the less momentum there is for big legislation like this. And, of course, a 50-50 Senate means just one defection, resignation or other unexpected event could suddenly make Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Senate majority leader again, killing the Biden agenda for months or years to come.
It would be incredibly foolish, then, to spend precious weeks on yet another attempted compromise that Republicans bail on like Lucy pulling away the football. If there’s a deal to be had, and Democrats can pass other priorities via reconciliation, great. If Democrats have to go it alone, fine. Either way, stop wasting time. Americans are waiting.“