A headline in The Hill today, reporting on the likely passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill, reads, “Senate GOP poised to give Biden huge political victory.” An obvious question is why. Politics is a zero-sum competition, and giving President Biden a huge win necessarily makes it harder for Republicans to win back Congress and the presidency. Although Republicans have supported bipartisan legislation before, they have usually done so by working quietly behind the scenes. Here, by letting their primary adversary “win” at his goal of passing a bipartisan law, they are taking an L for their own team.
The peculiarity of the decision is why I expected that the law would be defeated. And while I didn’t make any guarantees, the outcome is going in the opposite direction of what I expected, so it’s worth trying to understand why.
Mitch McConnell is probably not happy about handing Joe Biden a signature win, but what seems to have overridden that concern is two factors on the other side of the ledger. First, Republicans believe, or at least hope, that passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill will reduce the likelihood of passing a much larger Democratic budget bill later this year (or at least reduce its expected size).
The hope of buying down the next big bill has been a major reason Republicans signed on to infrastructure in the first place. Of course, that logic is far from assured. The biggest reason Republican senators backed off the deal after its first splashy Rose Garden announcement was probably the fact that Senator Joe Manchin had told reporters he would be supporting a reconciliation bill later. Democratic senators have been cagey about their intentions, but Senator Kyrsten Sinema has said the $3.5 trillion price tag is too high for her.
McConnell seems to have taken the view that moderate Democratic senators can have their appetites at least partially sated by a bipartisan bill. That calculation may well be wrong, and indeed I think it will be: Signing a popular bipartisan bill could just as easily give Biden more political capital to pass the next one. On the other hand, McConnell has more contact with the pivotal Democratic senators than I do and may have some basis for his calculation.
Second, and more important, McConnell sees the infrastructure bill as a chance to defend the legislative filibuster. He helped create the existing Senate rules, and they serve his purposes almost perfectly. The measures McConnell wants to pass (confirming judges, defunding programs, and cutting taxes) need just 50 votes, while most of the measures he doesn’t care for (writing new laws, passing some of his own party’s more radical social legislation) need 60 votes.
McConnell is obviously concerned that Democrats will weaken or eliminate the supermajority threshold for non-budget legislation, and he has instructed his allies to praise Manchin and Sinema for their support of the status quo. McConnell likely calculates that killing an infrastructure bill increases the risk that Democrats may decide the system doesn’t work and needs reform. The most telling line he uttered by way of explaining his support for the infrastructure bill was “Bills that deserve to pass this chamber are not having a hard time passing it.”
McConnell’s strategy is to use the infrastructure bill to press his case that the legislative supermajority blocks only bad bills.
Of course, one conclusion to be drawn here is that the threat of reforming the Senate rules is what gives Democrats leverage. If McConnell weren’t at least a little worried about the filibuster being rolled back, he might not allow the bipartisan bill to go forward. Which is to say, if Democratic senators want bipartisanship to continue, they need to keep the threat of Senate reform on the table.