How Republicans out of power are trying to dictate policy to Democrats

·4 min read
McConnell and Schumer collage
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (L) and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (R). Photo by Caroline Brehman and Manuel Balce Ceneta via AP Photo
  • Some Republicans insist Democrats can't pass a budget package in tandem with a bipartisan bill.

  • Progressives argue Republicans are trying to dictate policy - and governance - from the minority.

  • Biden is intent on negotiating with the GOP, but the filibuster also blocks most Democratic initiatives.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Congressional Democrats want to revamp the country's infrastructure, but they could run into some major potholes this summer.

Here's the issue at hand: President Joe Biden has negotiated two separate deals with Republicans and Democrats to address infrastructure and poverty. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is calling foul and threatening to blow up the deal with the GOP if Biden doesn't back off his deal with Democrats. Some Democrats are warning that this will play out like a "Peanuts" cartoon, with McConnell playing Lucy to their proverbial Charlie Brown.

It's unusual because Democrats control the House, Senate, and the White House, so technically Republicans have little authority to block anything. They are a minority trying to dictate how the majority governs, and therefore what policies are enacted. This is where the filibuster and reconciliation come in.

When the Republicans were last completely shut out of power, under President Barack Obama, McConnell pioneered the use - or abuse - of the filibuster, which has come to serve as a potent block on Democratic ambitions on tackling immigration reform, gun control, and voting rights. Democrats also made use of the filibuster under the Trump administration, which has left reconciliation as the major tool both parties use to pass important legislation without a 60-vote supermajority.

Members of McConnell's caucus are backing his play. Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, one of 11 GOP sponsors of the $579 billion bipartisan infrastructure deal, assailed the compromise as "a bad deal" if it is followed by a reconciliation bill.

Separately, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, another Republican sponsor, blasted "hostage-taking" from Congressional Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in a statement to The Washington Post.

The Biden administration has devoted months to negotiating with the GOP over the objections of many Democrats, particularly progressives. They've long warned that dragging out talks with Republicans could produce a watered-down plan that won't even win GOP support in the end.

"McConnell's goal is to use the prospect of bipartisan agreement to string Dems along for as long as possible before blocking the bill," Adam Jentleson, a former senior Democratic aide to Sen. Harry Reid, wrote on Twitter.

'The American public doesn't care about process'

Biden has long stressed the importance of bipartisanship, which may be colored by his three decades as a Delaware senator, but also may be an effort to move beyond regular filibuster use.

As he took his victory lap last week, Biden tried to assuage progressives within his party by saying he would veto the bipartisan deal if it wasn't tied to a separate reconciliation bill. This infuriated Senate Republicans and Biden backed down from his threat two days later.

While many Republicans seemed reassured by Biden's backtrack, McConnell wasn't, demanding that Biden ensure Pelosi and Schumer sever the link between the two deals. Pelosi has only doubled down since then. It raises the issue of whether Republicans actually support the bipartisan deal they reached with Biden, or if they only support it as long as Democrats drop the rest of their agenda.

"If we can get more things done with bipartisan support, we're going to go that way," White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said in a recent interview with New York Times podcast "Sway." "If we can't get the bipartisan support, we're going to see what we can get done without that bipartisan support."

Some Democrats argue that voters will ultimately care about them fulfilling their promises and little else.

"I totally agree that the American public doesn't care about process, what they care is whether or not they're getting results," Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota said in an NBC News interview. "So bipartisanship isn't our goal, it is the means to an end, if it's a means to the end. And with this Republican Party, they're not showing that they really are interested in getting solutions."

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