Why Mitch McConnell is the big winner on the infrastructure bill

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Mitch McConnell.
Mitch McConnell. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Well, that was unexpected.

The Senate on Sunday night voted to end debate on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Stunningly, it did so with the votes of 18 Republican senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). That means the GOP's opportunity to filibuster the bill is over, and final approval in the chamber will probably come as soon as today. There is still a hurdle or two to overcome: The Democrat-controlled House must also approve the bill — not a sure thing — before President Biden can sign it into law. Assuming everything goes smoothly, the package will go down as one of the most significant pieces of bipartisan legislation to pass Congress in recent memory, a seeming impossibility in a bitterly polarized age.

"I think we're about to get this done," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Sunday on Fox News.

Perhaps we have the filibuster itself to thank.

Yes, the filibuster is designed to block legislation instead of advance it — to the detriment of legislation on voting rights, gun control, and other liberal priorities. I've grumbled about this state of affairs for years. With control of the Senate in Democratic hands, many left-leaning activists, pundits, and pols have also advocated to end or reform the rule that effectively requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass legislation of any kind. Those efforts have been fruitless so far, but they may have been key to getting enough Republicans to cross the aisle to let this bill pass. The important figure in all of this, of course, is McConnell.

Preserving the filibuster is a high priority for McConnell, NBC News reported last month — so high that it was worth it to him to give up his usual tactics of obstructing Democratic governance just this once. Otherwise, moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) might have been tempted to succumb to progressive pressure and vote to end the rules that allow a minority party to obstruct the majority. "It becomes a very clear demonstration that blowing up the filibuster is not necessary to get big things done," Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) explained last month.

In other words, passing the infrastructure bill might have strengthened McConnell's hand in fighting against new voting rights legislation and other liberal priorities. He gets that benefit at virtually no cost to himself or his party, using $1 trillion in taxpayer money. And he doesn't really lose anything in the process — most of the stuff that's in the bipartisan infrastructure bill could've been passed in a majority-only reconciliation package, if simply passing stuff had been all Democrats wanted to do.

The headlines over the next few days will tell you that Biden is the big winner in this process, that his obsession with passing a bipartisan bill has paid off and proven that American government isn't irretrievably broken. In the short term, that might even be true. But McConnell might be the long-term victor here, ending up with a result that will benefit Republicans for years to come.

Still, it really does look as though the bipartisan bill will pass, which means a mea culpa is required. I didn't expect this to happen. Instead, I believed McConnell and his band of GOP senators would obstruct, delay, and frustrate negotiations on the legislation endlessly before the effort collapsed, and I wrote plenty of words to that effect — that Republicans were setting a trap for Democrats, that Biden's announcement of the bipartisan deal might be his "mission accomplished" moment, and that bipartisanship is a myth. I was wrong.

So what happened? I thought I was being smart by relying on recent history — specifically looking at the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, and how McConnell and Senate Republicans spent months haggling over a bipartisan approach to passing what became the Affordable Care Act. In that case, the GOP walked away from the legislation entirely, Democrats passed it on a party-line vote, and Republicans spent most of the next decade campaigning against the law. History may not repeat itself, I figured, but it very often rhymes.

What I forgot, though, is that there is one exception to polarization and gridlock in Washington, D.C.: The National Defense Authorization Act. No matter what else is happening in the country, Democrats and Republicans get together every year and pass a military spending bill — and they have done it now for 60 years in a row. Patriotism might be a motive here, but it's also true that the defense bill spreads money to contractors and employers in every state. For the most part, members of Congress in both parties like to bring home the bacon to their constituents. The infrastructure bill — which will put Americans to work building and repairing bridges, sewers, broadband, and more across the land — will do exactly the same thing. Forget red states and blue states. Sometimes green is the color that matters.

Still, Biden and his fellow Democrats shouldn't expect McConnell is suddenly going to make life easy for them. There's every reason to believe the GOP leader is "100 percent" focused on stopping the Biden administration. The bipartisan infrastructure bill is the exception to the rule.

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