I’m not sure why exactly Mitch McConnell allowed Joe Biden to have his big, $1.2 trillion infrastructure-bill victory, but I’ve got a feeling he won’t let it happen again. Ever.
It was notable, but hardly surprising, that McConnell wasn’t among those in attendance at the big party Nov. 15 on the White House South Lawn, where 800 lawmakers, former lawmakers, governors, mayors, business leaders, union leaders, a smattering of Republicans and probably a few unicorns gathered in celebration. Biden thanked McConnell for his support. It’s a good thing he didn’t ask him to take a bow.
Of the 13 House Republicans who voted for the bill — only to be hammered by Donald Trump and some of the House crazies as RINOs [Republicans in Name Only], traitors and worse — only two showed, according to a USA Today count.
McConnell, who had voted for the bill and who had even praised it as a “godsend” for his state of Kentucky, said he had other things to do than to join the party. I’ll bet he did. He may have voted for the bill. He may have helped pass the bill, which sailed through the Senate with McConnell’s permission. But the last thing he wanted was to give Biden photographic evidence of the bipartisanship that the president was so happily selling.
For his part, Biden said this bill was “proof” that the cynics and the naysayers had it all wrong, that even in dysfunctional Washington it was still possible to get things done. And with his approval ratings cratering, with many Democrats dissatisfied with Biden’s inability to get critical legislation passed, this was, in fact, a big effin’ deal for Biden, a much-needed victory for a very popular bill that will address the need to overhaul bridges and highways and expand broadband.
That’s why he turned the bill-signing ceremony into a party. He desperately needed some cause for celebration — with nothing yet on immigration reform, nothing yet on election reform, with many of his priorities, including major parts of his climate agenda, having been stripped from the climate and safety net bill. With mid-term elections upcoming and Democrats scared that they might well lose their majorities in both the House and the Senate.
The reason for the celebration was that, despite this one-off bill, bipartisanship rarely works in Washington or, for that matter, outside Washington. This was a fluke, and now Biden is back to the problem of persuading fellow Democrats Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to vote for the now-$1.75-trillion climate and safety net bill, which has — let’s do the math together here — exactly no Republican Senate votes.
Still, the bill can pass the Senate under reconciliation rules, but only if all 50 Democrats agree, and so far Manchin seems to be reveling in his position as deal-breaker. If the climate and safety net bill doesn’t pass, the infrastructure will be little more than $1 trillion-worth of nostalgia.
And so, it was no surprise that Sinema, the other recalcitrant Democrat, was given a prime speaking part at the bill-signing event. So was Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who had led the negotiations for Republicans and who, like Biden, praised bipartisanship. But as Biden noted, “I know I’m not hurting you, Rob, because you’re not running again.” Portman has announced he will retire next year.
McConnell, the ultimate Machiavellian, had his reasons for letting the bill pass, of course. They just don’t look so good for him in retrospect. His decision came at a time when it seemed that blocking a popular bill might just force Democrats to do away with the filibuster, which is now unlikely to happen unless the day comes — and it could be soon — McConnell is the one heading the small Senate majority.
And, of course, the bill would never have passed if Democrats hadn’t agreed to cut the baby in half — to split off the rest of the now-$1.75-trillion safety net bill (formerly the $3.5 trillion bill) that was once part of the full infrastructure package.
But when House progressives wouldn’t allow a vote on the infrastructure bill until the Senate voted to pass the safety net bill, everything changed. Progressives briefly had the upper hand, and for most House Republicans, that just wouldn’t do. Progressives finally caved because the Senate was never going to pass the climate and safety net bill unless the House passed the infrastructure bill first.
Still, six Democratic progressives voted against the bill, meaning it needed Republican votes to pass the closely divided House. And it was not only a victory for Biden, it was a rebuke of Trump and his many infrastructure weeks — which we remember only as a punch line for late-night comics — and the fact that he couldn’t get his very sizable infrastructure bill passed.
Trump said those who voted to give Biden a victory — just to make clear how Trump saw the vote — should be “ashamed,” and North Carolina’s Rep. Madison Cawthorn had warned before the vote, “Vote for this infrastructure bill and I will primary the hell out of you.”
Like Trump, Lauren Boebert called the House 13 RINOs and posted a video on the need to elect real Republicans like, you know, her. Or, I guess, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who said any Republican who voted for the bill would be “a traitor to our party, a traitor to their voters and a traitor to our donors.”
For Greene, that was just the warm-up act. She went on to say that the 13 had voted to pass “Joe Biden’s communist takeover of America.” She then tweeted out the office numbers of the commie sympathizers in her party.
And we’ve heard that some of the 13 have actually had their lives threatened for, yes, voting for a bill that — and this is true — they would have supported if Trump had proposed it. That’s hardly a surprise when someone like Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar posted a photoshopped animé video of him apparently killing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC, to you) and attacking Biden.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy belatedly said he had talked to Gosar about it. Most Republicans had had little to say about it or, for that matter, about the state of hateful rhetoric in general. On Nov. 17, House Democrats had Gosar censured and removed from the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the Natural Resources Committee.
So, yes, a major bipartisan bill did get passed and is rightly being celebrated. But no one believes that anything in Washington has truly changed. What I mean is, Biden can safely put the party hats back in storage. It may be a while before he needs them again.
Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.