The time-eating puppet show playing out between President Biden and Senate Republicans over the infrastructure bill has concluded its first phase. Each side played their roles well, if you’re into that sort of thing. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the West Virginia lawmaker leading the Senate GOP group in the negotiations, continued to hand Biden bag after bag of unworkable GOP “ideas,” while Biden held tight to the mantle of Bipartisan-Guy-in-Chief, even as he swatted down Capito’s nonsense suggestions one by one.
As impossible as it may sound, the next phase of this process promises to be even more maddening. “The breakdown did not close off the possibility of a bipartisan compromise entirely,” reports The New York Times, “and the White House signaled that the president would continue seeking one. He shifted his focus to a bipartisan group of centrist senators who have been working separately on an alternative, calling three of them personally to cheer on their efforts and encourage them to work with top White House officials to hammer out a deal.”
This “bipartisan group” currently includes six senators, among them Republicans Mitt Romney and Rob Portman. On the Democratic side sit… wait for it… Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, two of the people who are currently the reason why we can’t have nice things like roads, bridges and voting. Somehow, we are expected to believe these two — with the help of Mitt the Human Weathervane and Portman, a stalwart ally of Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism for the last decade — are capable, or even interested, in pulling this rabbit out of a hat.
(Bang head here.)
A growing number of Democrats, both within and without the progressive caucuses in the House and Senate, have had about a bellyful of this elongated mess. CNN White House reporters Manu Raju and Lauren Fox spoke to multiple Democratic senators after a closed-door lunch on Tuesday. After Sinema announced her confidence that a deal could be struck before departing the meeting, several senators threw buckets of cold water on the idea that Republicans were interested in doing anything other than running out the clock to the August recess. Confidence in Manchin and Sinema specifically was not high.
“There is no way Manchin and Sinema are going to cut a deal that represents the view of the caucus,” said one Democratic senator who was not named in the CNN report. “A group of four or five people don’t get to carry 50 Democratic votes on their back,” said a second, also unnamed senator. “I’ve been ready to move on from bipartisanship for major priorities for the Biden administration for a while now,” said Mazie Hirono, voicing the opinion of many in the room.
All of this unfolded against the backdrop of ongoing Republican obstruction against popular Democratic legislation. The Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill aimed at addressing the gender wage gap, was successfully filibustered to death by Republicans on Tuesday. Not one of them voted for it.
“I think that’s [bipartisanship] coming to a screeching halt this month because the majority leader is starting with the so-called Paycheck Fairness bill late this afternoon,” said McConnell yesterday, “which is essentially a giveaway to the plaintiffs lawyers in America, a series of totally partisan bills designed to get no Republican support.”
There it is, right there, in flaming letters 10 stories tall. This has been McConnell’s playbook since 2009. He makes promising noises before undercutting Democratic legislation, and then grandstands about how it’s the other side’s fault. The minority leader is the political version of a funnel spider: He leads his prey to the edge of his lair, and then bursts out of his hole to inject his poison before dragging his victim down into the dark so his children can feed.
McConnell pulled this exact same number on Joe Manchin just the other day. Manchin, who is resisting the voting reform For the People Act, has voiced support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. This was Manchin going out on a limb for the sake of his beloved bipartisanship, but McConnell chopped him down and made him look like a fool.
Why? Because for as long as McConnell is minority leader, there will be no legislation passed that aids President Biden politically if he can possibly help it. This includes an infrastructure bill, the filibuster, either voting bill, and whatever else may be on the White House menu. Dude may as well be holding a sign, yet Manchin and his cohort blunder on toward the funnel hole like a clutch of juicy beetles that have lost their way.
The infrastructure bill can be passed in the Senate via reconciliation without a single Republican vote, and that appears to be the only way it will happen. All 50 Democratic senators along with Vice President Kamala Harris will have to vote in favor, so lashing Manchin and his people to the mast is the paramount priority. So long as this dithering caucus of Mitt, Rob, Joe and Kyrsten — along with the president — belabor the fiction of possible bipartisanship, however, Manchin and company will threaten to break ranks when voting time comes.
In every meaningful sense, what we have here is a hostage crisis, with Manchin as the lead hostage-taker. All these pieces of vital legislation, and the people they would serve, are the hostages. In this, Biden is squarely complicit with his drawn-out quest for something that has a snowball’s chance in hell of happening while McConnell sits in the minority leader’s chair. Only a hard turn toward the reconciliation process and a reckoning with Manchin and his crew have any real chance of resolving the infrastructure impasse.
It will likely be days before we see any sort of resolution; Biden has winged his way to Europe for the next eight days to try and repair the appalling damage done by the previous administration. For the time being, expect a lot of talk and no action. Alas, puppet shows aren’t only for children anymore.