McConnell has tough choices to make on deal
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is facing conflicting political pressures as he hits the brakes on a bipartisan infrastructure deal that could give President Biden a major legislative accomplishment heading into the 2022 midterm election.
McConnell, who blasted Democratic congressional leaders Monday for tying a reconciliation package opposed by his party to the bipartisan deal, has no desire to give Biden a big victory the president’s party can use as a campaign weapon in the midterms.
But the GOP leader also doesn’t want Republicans to be cast as the villains by Biden in a story about why the bipartisan deal failed. Such a narrative, if used effectively, could hurt the GOP as it seeks to win back the Senate majority next year, when Republicans will be defending several vulnerable seats.
There’s also the matter of the huge reconciliation package that Biden and Democrats are vowing to pass without GOP votes.
Republicans are conflicted over whether passing the bipartisan infrastructure deal will make it easier or harder for Democrats to pass that bigger package, which the GOP uniformly opposes.
The conflict has its mirror in the Democratic Party, where senators also aren’t sure whether passage of the bipartisan deal will ultimately grease the skids for the larger package or prevent it from happening.
Progressives, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), warn that without the political pull of traditionally popular infrastructure spending, elements of Biden’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan and bold climate change-related proposals will get left behind.
McConnell says he hasn’t yet decided on whether to support the five-year, $973 billion proposal backed by 11 Republican senators, even though it would send billions of dollars to Kentucky and other states struggling with crumbling infrastructure.
The GOP leader told reporters in Louisville, Ky., on Monday, “I haven’t decided yet,” but gave himself an escape by emphasizing that he wants to see a budget analysis on the bipartisan deal to ensure it won’t add significantly to the soaring deficit.
“We need to get a score, so we need to see whether the proposal is credibly paid for,” he cautioned.
Cooperating with Biden, for most of McConnell’s caucus, seems highly unlikely, and the GOP leader was outspoken Monday in calling on Democrats to drop their efforts to tie the deal to a budget reconciliation package that is still being formed.
“When you get to the grassroots of the Republican Party base there’s very little interest in passing anything that Joe Biden signs into law,” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist.
He warned of a potential backlash to Republicans.
“Particularly if there’s a couple trillion dollars in social welfare spending and it’s perceived Republicans acted in a way that facilitated that, there’s going to be backlash against Republicans at the grassroots level,” he said. “I think the grassroots of the party is increasingly anti-Biden.”
Chip Saltsman, another GOP strategist based in Tennessee, agreed that many base voters aren’t in the mood to cooperate with Biden.
“The Republican grassroots, they’re not interested in any Joe Biden legislation passing,” he said.
He argued there are similar sentiments on the Democratic side, where progressives for weeks have called for ending talks with Republicans.
Saltsman added that “there are a lot of Republicans that would like to see a good infrastructure package passed” but “lock up” over expanding the definition of infrastructure to include long-term home health care, expanded child care and expanded Medicare.
Another wild card for McConnell is whether former President Trump, who says he is strongly considering another run for president, comes out against the bipartisan deal that Biden touted at the White House last week.
Trump indicated Monday that he would have vetoed the Democrats’ two-phase approach to infrastructure spending, and he criticized McConnell for not mounting more opposition to the Biden agenda.
“Had Mitch McConnell fought for the Presidency like he should have, there would right now be Presidential Vetoes on all of the phased Legislation that he has proven to be incapable of stopping,” Trump said in a statement issued by his Save America PAC.
A complicating factor in McConnell’s calculus is that four of the five principal Senate Republican negotiators of the bipartisan framework voted earlier in February to convict Trump on an article of impeachment.
Some Republican strategists warn that passing a bipartisan infrastructure package could be seen as a win for Biden, who could use it to claim he fulfilled his 2020 campaign promise to restore some measure of bipartisanship and normalcy to Washington.
“It’s a good photo-op for him,” Jim McLaughlin, a Republican strategist and pollster, said of the boost Biden would get from a bipartisan deal. But he argued that the 2022 midterm and 2024 general election will be decided by many issues, not just infrastructure. “It’s a piece of the puzzle and could help him,” he said.
There’s also lingering resentment among Trump supporters who believe Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) dug in their heels during Trump’s four years in office to deny him a bipartisan win on infrastructure before the 2020 election.
“I can remember conversations with White House folks [during the Trump administration] and asking at one point, ‘Why can’t we do infrastructure?’ and they said because Nancy Pelosi doesn’t want to give us a win,” McLaughlin said.
Yet McLaughlin also acknowledged that many Republicans are eager to strike a deal with Biden to show their constituents they can get things done in Washington.
“[Sen.] Mitt Romney [R-Utah] would like to go up there like they did the other day and give them a deal,” he said, referring to Biden’s press appearance with moderate Republicans at the White House last week.
“I think there are a lot of Republicans out there who want to show that the government can work,” he added.
One such Republican is Sen. Mike Rounds (S.D.), who is one of 21 senators who signed a statement earlier this month endorsing the bipartisan infrastructure framework.
“Just to have the framework that’s agreed to by Republicans, Democrats and the White House is a major step forward and I think it points out if you work at it and if you have a common goal, you can still do bipartisan work in the United States Senate. That by itself is a huge message to the American people,” he said.
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