McConnell seeks to divide and conquer Democrats
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is looking to split President Biden from his progressive base by expressing an openness to a possible bipartisan infrastructure deal that is much smaller than Biden’s preferred plan.
Liberal lawmakers also want a bigger package, and they distrust McConnell, who they think may be aiming to string Democrats and Biden along with signals of support for a bipartisan deal crafted by 10 senators.
Yet it is difficult for Biden to stiff-arm the deal, since he has been making a serious effort to reach a bipartisan consensus on infrastructure while pivoting a gridlocked Washington from the Trump era.
Senate Republican aides say McConnell is daring Biden to split with progressives who want to shut down the bipartisan talks and pile as much of Biden’s $4.1 trillion spending agenda as possible into a budget reconciliation package, which under complicated Senate rules could bypass a filibuster and avoid the need for GOP support — if Democrats stick together.
One Republican aide who requested anonymity to discuss strategy said McConnell’s “posture all along has been he’s willing to work with Biden if he’s moderate.”
“The question is whether Democrats are willing to swallow that and that’s unclear at this point,” the GOP aide added.
The source predicted that Senate Democrats will “either coalesce” or liberals led by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) will “firebomb the package because it doesn’t give them what they want.”
Progressives in the Senate and House have been ramping up calls to drop negotiations with Republicans and move forward with the reconciliation package.
McConnell by contrast has encouraged moderate Republicans to come up with a bipartisan deal — as long as it’s focused on traditional infrastructure and doesn’t cost much more than $600 billion in new funding or raise taxes.
“Mitch is open,” said a Republican senator who met with McConnell on Wednesday.
The lawmaker, who requested anonymity to discuss a private meeting, said McConnell told negotiators they can disclose that he is interested in seeing progress on a bipartisan deal.
Democrats are expected to try to move a reconciliation package whether they get a bipartisan deal or not.
But McConnell’s calculation is that if there is a bipartisan bill passed, Democrats will have a tougher time getting votes for the reconciliation package.
“McConnell’s strategy is divide and conquer. He wants to drive a wedge between Biden and progressive Democrats and he knows if he can do that, one, he creates big problems for Biden, and, two, he limits Biden’s ability to pass transformative legislation,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the left-leaning Brookings Institution.
The early indication from the White House is that Biden and his senior staff don’t like some of the bipartisan group’s proposals for paying for their spending plan, such as adjusting the gas tax to inflation and requiring a mileage fee for electric vehicles.
That may be enough of an excuse for Biden to come out against the bipartisan framework, or simply withhold his support.
Shooting down the bipartisan proposal would make it more likely Democrats move only one infrastructure package this year, which would be welcome news to progressive Democrats.
Progressives such as Sanders, Warren, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) want hundreds of billions of dollars for expanded child care, universal pre-kindergarten and long-term home health care, as well as authority for the government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices and new incentives for clean energy production.
They think those proposals stand a better chance of becoming law if combined with traditional infrastructure in the reconciliation package.
Progressives worry that passing a scaled-down package focused on core, physical infrastructure with Republican votes in the summer or early fall will diminish the appetite within their party for passing the rest of Biden’s social infrastructure agenda.
“The trillions are starting to add up. Each trillion in new expenditure makes it more difficult to do anything else,” West said. “It just becomes harder to keep Democrats on the same page.”
A few centrist Democrats are raising concerns about a recent uptick in inflation, which Larry Summers, who served as director of former President Obama’s National Economic Council, warns could get worse if the federal government keeps spending.
“We are printing money, we are creating government bonds, we are borrowing on unprecedented scales,” Summers warned. “Those things that surely create more of a risk for a sharp dollar decline than we had before. And sharp dollar declines are much more likely to translate themselves into inflation than they were historically.”
McConnell has seized on Summers’s warnings to further split Democrats.
“One survey just found that more than 80 percent of American families are tightening their household budgets because of the threat of inflation,” the GOP leader said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
“No wonder Larry Summers says he’s concerned that these proposals are, quote, ‘substantially excessive … way overdoing the requisite response,’ he said.
Key Democratic moderates, including senators who signed their names this week to the bipartisan infrastructure framework, are paying more attention to inflation.
“It’s concerning,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in response to a report Thursday that the consumer price index for May had risen 5 percent compared to a year ago.
“It’s challenging, it makes it hard on the average person out there trying to make it,” Manchin said.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), another signatory to the bipartisan deal, says that fast-rising lumber prices is a major issue in his home state.
The other Democrats backing the new bipartisan infrastructure deal are Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Mark Warner (Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).
Republican strategist Vin Weber said moderate Democrats may be having second thoughts about passing all of Biden’s $4.1 trillion infrastructure agenda after polls show the president’s approval rating didn’t get much of a boost from the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Package, which didn’t get a single Republican vote in either chamber.
“He did exactly what he wanted for a hundred days and it didn’t help his standing. So if you’re a Democrat looking at the thing, you’re thinking, ‘Maybe we better be careful about how aggressive we get because maybe don’t have the mandate that we thought we had in the wake of those two Georgia Senate wins,’ ” he said, referring to the two Democratic upset victories in the January Senate runoff elections in Georgia, which gave Democrats the Senate majority.
Biden’s job approval rating stood at 54 percent in mid-May, according to Gallup. While that was 15 points better than where President Trump was at the same point in his presidency, it was 11 points lower than where President Obama stood in May 2009.
The average approval rating as measured by Gallup for U.S. presidents after their first four months in office is 53 percent. The average goes back to 1938.
“I don’t if the Democrats are divided yet but I bet there are a whole lot of them that are really having second thoughts about the aggressiveness of the Biden fiscal agenda,” Weber said.