Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey still believes that bipartisanship is possible, so much so that he’s reached out to an unlikely partner on legislation: Mitch McConnell.
“I don’t want to talk about the bill because we’re actively working on this subject, but it’s something that he and I both care about,” Booker said.
Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon holds a much more dour view of McConnell’s legislative intentions when Democrats are in power. In three simple steps, he says, it’s to wink, stall and block.
“He’s deeply welded to it,” Merkley said. “And part of that is to pretend he’s on the verge of compromise. We saw this horror film play out in 2009-2010. We’ve seen it before. We know his game. We don’t buy it.”
The diverging perspectives of these two senators neatly lays out the dilemma for Democrats going forward, now that they’ve cleared a coronavirus relief package that didn’t earn a single Republican vote. While some in the party still see room for negotiation and compromise on issues, others stress that none of their top priorities will ever clear the Senate if they decide to play ball with the Republican leader.
The competing theories are set to face a series of tests in the coming weeks on an assembly-line of House-approved issues that face long odds in the Senate: from a package of wide-ranging voting rights reforms to changing the way law enforcement officers are held accountable when they employ deadly force.
A growing number of Democrats have signed on to the belief that eliminating or at least modifying the filibuster — the minority’s last lever to delay and jettison legislation — is the only way forward, repeatedly invoking McConnell’s past obstruction as evidence he won’t genuinely meet them halfway. But Democrats currently lack the votes even in their own party to stamp out the tool that was originally developed by southern senators in the 19th century.
Sixty votes are needed to break a filibuster, meaning it would require ten Republicans to cross party lines to allow for passage of most Democratic bills — a tall order for a largely polarized Senate. While getting to 60 seems highly doubtful on Democratic Party measures like mandating automatic voter registration across the country and banning chokeholds by police, some Democrats still see hope for potential bargains being forged on infrastructure funding and alterations to immigration policy.
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said it’s rank-and-file Republicans carrying their own legislative initiatives or grander political ambitions who could nudge McConnell toward some concessions.
“Republicans are just as frustrated as Democrats, I can tell you that. They want bills on the floor, they want debate, they want to vote,” Cardin said. “There’s a reason why Sen. McConnell may want to join these efforts because he knows we can use reconciliation again. And I think he would prefer to have a more open process.”
But true to form, McConnell has thus far been much more vocal about what he opposes than anything he might support. Even as he railed for weeks against the $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill, he never put a marker down on the size of a package he could get behind. He often cited the $618 billion compromise package put forth in early February by a group of 10 Republican senators as an overture of bipartisanship, without ever personally blessing it with his backing.
On a GOP proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour, McConnell has only said it’s worth discussing.
On HR 1, a sweeping Democratic bill that would change how elections are run, McConnell has made clear his fierce opposition. The legislation would expand opportunities to vote, like early and mail-in balloting, eliminate partisan gerrymandering of U.S. House districts and transfer significant power over the local administration of elections to the federal government.
“To undermine voter ID requirements with massive loopholes that undermine them … to require every state to permit ballot harvesting, which lets paid political operatives produce stacks of ballots with other people’s names on them … to overturn or change hundreds of state election laws,” McConnell lamented on the Senate floor. “[It’s] a hugely harmful idea at the worst possible time.”
On Wednesday, McConnell took aim at President Joe Biden’s immigration policy, noting the number of unaccompanied migrant children who have come across the southern border has tripled in just two weeks. He faulted the Biden campaign and administration’s “giant push towards amnesty and insecurity” for enticing people to enter the U.S.
Jeremy Robbins, the executive director of the New American Economy, a bipartisan immigration advocacy group, notes that McConnell once tasked Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to work on a bill protecting Dreamers, children of undocumented immigrants. But the ongoing border crisis will likely make it tougher for Republicans to sign on to anything that doesn’t include heightened security measures.
Asked about prospects for immigration reform, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democratic leader in the Senate, didn’t blare with optimism. “I really don’t know,” he told a reporter. “I hope so.”
Senate Democrats and White House aides have been cagey about what agenda item they’ll tackle next, but most signs point to some type of infrastructure package, largely due to the belief that money for buildings, roads and airports have the best shot at attracting some Republican support.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain told Punchbowl News he’s cautiously optimistic about cobbling together a bipartisan infrastructure plan. But moderate Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, perhaps the most powerful senator in a 50-50 chamber, has already signaled he won’t get behind any infrastructure spending unless it includes Republican input.
The ultimate price tag and whether it is paid for through tax increases or repeals of former President Donald Trump’s tax cuts could determine whether any GOPer dares to come on board.
But McConnell never showed much enthusiasm for infrastructure during a Republican presidency. In the summer of 2020, he dubbed a $1.5 trillion House infrastructure bill that included a provision requiring states to slash greenhouse gas emissions “nonsense … not going anywhere.”
Even last April, as Congress rushed through a swarm of spending to fight the pandemic, McConnell rejected the inclusion of infrastructure projects on the grounds that they didn’t directly relate to the coronavirus.
Continued recalcitrance from McConnell could push even more Democratic senators to their wits’ end.
Former Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan opposes the elimination of the filibuster but also acknowledged that McConnell hasn’t given his party much reason to believe in cooperation.
“It’s likely that McConnell has one thing in mind: Regaining the majority in the Senate. One would expect he’s probably very unlikely to provide assistance for Joe Biden to succeed in certain areas,” Dorgan said. “You can make a pretty good case there really aren’t a lot of good intentions from the Republican leader.”