This has at times devolved into absurdity, as when McConnell committed all Republicans to voting “no” on an increase in the statutory debt ceiling without making any demands whatsoever of Democrats. All he wanted was for his members to be able to say that they voted no. But he didn’t want the US to breach the debt ceiling, so he agreed to create a mini-exception to the filibuster allowing Democrats to do it on a party-line vote.
Alec MacGillis’ excellent 2014 biography of McConnell is titled The Cynic, and the leopard hasn’t much changed his spots. But this was cynical politics with heavy guardrails in place: Yes, he was trying to win the political game, but he was also trying not to blow up the economy.
Something similar happened to prevent a last-minute derailment of the spending bill.
Senator Mike Lee of Utah got the idea of attaching an amendment to the bill that would require the federal government to keep the Trump-era policy of expelling asylum-seekers at the southern border. This was shrewd politics, as the issue has divided moderate Democrats from the White House.
The problem is that it was almost too shrewd — for a moment, it seemed like the amendment might pass. That was a dealbreaker for House progressives, which would have meant the omnibus could have passed only with some GOP support. And even though the bill has strong bipartisan support in the Senate, House Republicans are uniformly opposed.
What McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer eventually worked out was a deal to vote on two separate border amendments, one of which would include extra money for immigration judges. Moderate Democrats will support the version that includes the money, while Republicans will support the version that doesn’t. Everyone will be able to say they supported the expulsion policy, but it magically won’t end up in the bill and thus won’t die in the House.
This averts a government shutdown and, on a purely cynical basis, works for Republicans — because they can still run against Biden on immigration policy. But beyond maneuvering to keeps the lights on, the 117th Congress has also passed a lot of low-key bipartisan bills.
Several of them relate to military assistance to Ukraine. But there was also a Water Resources Development Act tucked into the annual defense appropriations bill, supporting projects that environmental groups say will improve America’s resiliency to climate change. And this was Congress’s second clean water law, following 2021’s Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act. That’s to say nothing of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which (though mostly dedicated to transportation) also features huge investment in the cleanup of lead pipes in municipal water systems.
This is not exactly “transformative” legislation. But it is significant, just as the federal codification of same-sex marriage rights is a welcome symbol of inclusion for gay and lesbian couples over and above its concrete impact.
Also emblematic of this new bipartisan spirit is the Safer Communities Act — a modest gun control bill that passed in July. A few years ago, I would have said no such bill could ever pass over the objections of the GOP minority. McConnell would surely want to deny a Democratic president any achievement, I thought, especially a bipartisan achievement.
But the root-and-branch obstruction that marked Republicans’ posture during Barack Obama’s presidency is gone. Some of that is a testament to the success of Biden’s low-key approach and Senate experience. And some of it is McConnell’s recognition that even Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin could lose patience with the filibuster if they couldn’t get anything done.
It’s also not a coincidence that the Congress which stepped back from the brink of hyper-polarization is the one that convened on Jan. 6, 2021.
The honorable and decent response to the events of that day would have been the nearly unanimous conviction of Donald Trump and his removal from office. But politics doesn’t work that way; at that point, most Republicans were simply unwilling to confront Trump.
If there is a silver lining to Jan. 6, it may be that it left professional politicians — no, the term is not an insult, and yes, it applies to some Republican members of Congress — with a strong desire to find some vindication for their vocation. They wanted to remind the world that there is more to politics than yelling on Twitter. And the past two years have shown that, to a surprising extent, the yelling-on-Twitter part of politics can proceed on an entirely separate track from the cutting-deals-in-Congress part of politics. People still use Twitter, of course, and still yell a lot. Meanwhile, those who care about legislating have been doing it, calmly and quietly.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• The Perils of Lame-Duck Fiscal Policy: The Editors
• Democrats Show How Lawmaking Should Be Done: Jonathan Bernstein
• Truth Is Reasserting Itself Over Trump’s Lies: Francis Wilkinson
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Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans.”
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