For someone held up as a legislative genius/strategical mastermind, Mitch McConnell sure has had a run of clunkers lately.
The Kentucky senator and Senate minority leader, who embraced the moniker Darth Vader for his purported ability to thwart Democrats’ ambitions, looked foolish last week. The Republican leader flopped when his Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced a deal with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on a tax-and-spending binge mere hours after McConnell and 16 other Republicans voted on final passage of a pork-laden spending bill they had previously vowed to stop.
But last week’s debacle, in which Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said Republicans “got rinky-doo’d — that’s a Louisiana word for ‘screwed,’” represents only the most recent instance of McConnell’s stratagems coming a-cropper. In reality, Schumer has out-maneuvered McConnell on most of the important legislative packages during the 117th Congress:
Cave #1: Debt Limit
As I explained last fall, once House and Senate Democrats agreed to a budget resolution in August that did not include an explicit provision to raise the debt limit via budget reconciliation, Democrats forfeited all their leverage over the debt limit. After that point, they needed Republican cooperation to raise the debt limit — either one Republican senator needed to attend a committee markup, to allow Democrats to amend the budget resolution so all 50 Democrats could raise the debt limit via budget reconciliation, or 10 Republicans needed to vote for the bill on the Senate floor to overcome a filibuster.
McConnell had an enormous amount of leverage — and what did he do with it? First, he and ten other colleagues gave Democrats their votes to pass a short-term increase in the debt limit last October. Two months later, he and Schumer concocted a backroom deal creating an entirely new process for Democrats to raise the debt limit. In this case, Republicans didn’t vote for the debt limit itself — but 14 Republicans voted for the process that allowed the increase to take place.
When it comes to the debt limit, McConnell would likely argue that his position represented a case of discretion being the better part of valor. He didn’t demand substantive concessions like forcing Democrats to nix their Build Back Bankrupt bill entirely because he feared that a confrontation of that magnitude could compel Sens. Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to vote with their colleagues to nix the legislative filibuster, which he had vowed to protect.
But McConnell shouldn’t have spent months picking a fight he knew he would end up losing. In August 2021, Democrats omitted a debt limit increase from their budget resolution, and forfeited their leverage in the process, because they feared it would jeopardize the resolution’s passage and because Schumer believed that McConnell, in the end, would cave. McConnell did just that.
Cave #2: Chips Bill
In late June, when word leaked that Schumer and Manchin had resumed serious talks about reviving Build Back Bankrupt, McConnell sent out a very clear warning that any attempt to pass “a partisan reconciliation bill” would lead to the death of a bipartisan bill promoting semiconductor chip production:
Both before and after McConnell’s threat, Democrats never stopped pursuing “a partisan reconciliation bill.” They just spent two weeks setting their sights slightly lower than they had in early July, focusing “only” on health care.
To borrow Kennedy’s phrase, McConnell got “rinky-doo’d” on the semiconductor bill only because he caved on the principle he first laid out on the last day of June: That any attempt to pass “a partisan reconciliation bill” — no matter how large or small — would lead to the death of the chip legislation. When Democrats publicly shifted towards a health-care-only reconciliation, McConnell gave the green light for passage of the chips legislation, which backfired on him in dramatic fashion last Wednesday.
But that attitude, whereby lawmakers generally approve of something slightly smaller than the Democrats’ big-government approach, typifies the Republican “leadership” in Washington. As it happens, the 17 Republicans who voted to pass the chips bill last Wednesday approved legislation stuffed with corporate welfare and pork-barrel spending, just slightly less than the original versions of the legislation that passed the House and Senate.
Cave #3: Infrastructure and Reconciliation
Overhanging the entire debate about Democrats’ “partisan reconciliation bill” lies the argument that McConnell and other Senate Republicans made last summer: That agreeing to a $1 trillion bipartisan spending binge on “infrastructure” would prevent Democrats from ever congealing around a tax-and-spending package via budget reconciliation.
That premise always seemed dubious at best, since Democrats’ differences surrounding the legislation came more in degree than in kind. Even Manchin supports higher taxes and more government spending, albeit not as much as progressives and socialists like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
If the coming week plays out as Democrats hope, Biden and Schumer will have achieved passage of both a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a partisan tax-and-spending package. If the latter does clear Congress, and here’s hoping that it doesn’t, Biden should extend McConnell an invitation to the White House signing ceremony. After all, he’s earned it.