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On $3.5 Trillion Package, McConnell Meets Defeat — But the Fight’s Not Over

The Senate’s passage of the reconciliation bill is a hopeful sign for a desperate country.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell arrives to the U.S. Capitol for a rare Saturday session on August 7, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

In 1974, Muhammad Ali stepped into a boxing ring in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) to face formidable heavyweight champion George Foreman, and by most in-the-moment reports of the day, Ali spent the first seven rounds of the fight getting the living Jesus beaten out of him. Foreman pummeled Ali with notorious power punches that started in his hometown of Houston and whistled into Ali’s ribs, shoulders and head. The assault was vicious and utterly relentless.

All the while, Ali laid back on the ropes, totally defensive and seemingly doomed… until the bell rang for the eighth round, and Foreman came out of his corner gassed. He had punched himself out against his docile, seemingly immobile opponent, and in a flurry of blows that shook the African night, Ali put the champion on his back. Once again, Muhammad Ali was the greatest.

I wonder if President Biden has been reading his Plimpton, Mailer, and the other sports journalism artists of the day. It sure seems like it. The tactic Ali deployed that night is called the “rope-a-dope” — lie back, let your opponent punch themselves out, survive the onslaught and then pounce. Ali pulled it off in ’74 to retain the title that was stripped from him when he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, and it sure as hell looks like Biden did the same to Mitch McConnell this week.

“The Senate took a major step early on Wednesday toward enacting a sweeping expansion of the nation’s social safety net,” reports The New York Times, “approving a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint along party lines that would allow Democrats to fund climate change, health care and education measures while increasing taxes on wealthy people and corporations. After an unusual bipartisan approval of a $1 trillion infrastructure package a day earlier, the vote over unanimous Republican opposition allows Senate Democrats to create an expansive package that will carry the remainder of President Biden’s $4 trillion economic agenda.”

After a seeming eternity spent watching McConnell disrupt the legislative priorities of Democratic presidents, often with a shamelessness that bent the very light, seeing these two huge bills pass right under McConnell’s upturned nose was almost surreal. McConnell even voted for the first half, if only to let the folks back in Kentucky know that he showed up for work that day. The second half, where the real money and genuine change resides, survived every punch McConnell could throw.

For months, it seemed like McConnell would successfully slow-walk the bills to death, as has been his way for years. “Negotiation” in Mitch-speak translates cleanly to “Run out the clock,” and it looked for a long time (seven rounds, yeah?) like Biden had absorbed few of the hard lessons learned by his Democratic predecessor. Then, like a sudden wind, came the last 48 hours, the eighth round of the match. The president came off the ropes and laid out the minority leader like so much laundry with a legislative one-two punch that, if signed into law, will change the face of the country.

McConnell and the GOP are not out of moves yet, but their new tactics will not take place in the chamber. The American Action Network, the House GOP leadership group closely tied to the Congressional Leadership Fund, is preparing to roll out a $5 million ad blitz attacking vulnerable House Democrats over the volume of spending in this bill. These attacks could make it difficult for Speaker Pelosi to hold her caucus together. However, it’s worth remembering that these bills are wildly popular among a broad swath of voters across the political spectrum. Attacking them, and the House members who vote for them, may come to be nothing more than a nifty waste of money.

Of course, because these are Democrats we are talking about, Democrats will be the main problem going forward. McConnell is still staring up at the lights in that empty boxing ring wondering what the hell just happened, and now the Joe Manchins of the world get their chance to knock the whole thing over.

“Given the current state of the economic recovery, it is simply irresponsible to continue spending at levels more suited to respond to a Great Depression or Great Recession, not an economy that is on the verge of overheating,” the West Virginia senator said in a Wednesday statement. “I firmly believe that continuing to spend at irresponsible levels puts at risk our nation’s ability to respond to the unforeseen crises our country could face. I urge my colleagues to seriously consider this reality as this budget process unfolds in the coming weeks and months.”

Manchin, along with Kyrsten Sinema, Jon Tester and a clutch of like-minded “moderates,” now stand as the most perilous impediment to the passage of this legislation. Because zero Republican votes will be forthcoming no matter the final language, all 50 members of the Senate’s Democratic caucus — plus the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris in her role as president of the Senate — will be needed. One defection will be the whole ballgame. Manchin and his crew come to the table with a very large stick, and they know it.

“Senate Republicans can’t stop Democrats from spending as much as $3.5 trillion more on social priorities like climate change in the coming months,” reports Politico. “Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema can, though, and the GOP lobbying effort is already underway. After 19 GOP senators boosted a bipartisan infrastructure plan past a filibuster and onto the House, Republicans are yearning for results from their cooperation with Manchin and Sinema’s effort. Namely, they’re hoping to persuade the senior Democratic senators from West Virginia and Arizona to buck their party and shave down the social spending bill by holding out their votes.”

On the House side, the nearly 100-strong Progressive Caucus is threatening to withhold support for the $1 trillion portion of this package until the Senate first approves the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. The Manchin corners of the Democratic House majority are making their own nervous noises about the size of the bill, perhaps out of fear of that aforementioned GOP ad campaign. All of these challenges, and more, must be overcome even as the text of the bills is drafted and presented for review.

If these bills survive the uphill climb to the verge of passage, McConnell has one weapon remaining: The debt ceiling. “Forty-six GOP senators are warning that they will not vote to raise the debt ceiling as Republicans ramp up pressure on Democrats to increase the nation’s borrowing limit on their own,” reports The Hill. “All but four members of the Senate Republican Conference signed on to the letter — addressed to ‘fellow Americans’ and released Tuesday night — that warns that the 46 GOP senators won’t support a debt hike, regardless of whether it’s attached to another bill or brought up on its own.”

The stakes could hardly be higher in the coming months, and the outcome is far from certain. On a pair of nights this week, however, Mitch McConnell decisively lost his title as master of the Senate, and legislation that will actually help people saw the beginnings of daylight. Rope-a-dope, indeed.

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