For the White House, the omnibus spending package that cleared Capitol Hill last week wasn’t just one victory, it was a handful of simultaneous wins. The bill addressed many of the administration’s spending priorities, while overhauling the Electoral Count Act to prevent future coup attempts. It also, of course, took Republican-imposed shutdown plans off the table until next fall.
But in a written statement on Friday, President Joe Biden also stressed a specific word over and over again:
The bipartisan funding bill advances key priorities for our country and caps off a year of historic bipartisan progress for the American people. ... This bill is further proof that Republicans and Democrats can come together to deliver for the American people, and I’m looking forward to continued bipartisan progress in the year ahead.
In all over the course of just five paragraphs, Biden used the word “bipartisan” nine times.
It’s tough to blame the Democrat for bragging a bit: Biden has racked up more bipartisan legislative victories than nearly anyone expected two years ago. As regular readers know, the list includes the infrastructure package, the CHIPS and Science Act, an expansion of veterans benefits in the PACT Act, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act — the first major legislation to address gun violence in nearly three decades — and the Postal Service Reform Act. Even the Respect for Marriage Act passed with a fair amount GOP support in both chambers.
As of late last week, the list is just a bit longer.
In the interest of disclosure, I should acknowledge that I didn’t expect this to happen. On the contrary, as 2021 got underway, I generally assumed that Biden, like Barack Obama in the recent past, would extend his hand to congressional Republicans, who would again slap it away.
But why didn’t that happen?
A couple of weeks ago, I put together a handful of possible explanations, starting with Republican fears of filibuster reform. Remember, in the Obama era, Senate Democrats were generally opposed to dramatic overhauls of the chamber’s filibuster rules. There were some calling for the Senate to return to its majority-rule roots, but those voices were largely seen as the institution’s progressive fringe. Republicans acted with impunity, demanding 60-vote supermajorities on everything they could, all while refusing to compromise.
The scope of the GOP abuses changed Democratic attitudes considerably, leaving Republican leaders with an uncomfortable realization: The more they refused to negotiate on measures designed to garner bipartisan backing, the more likely it became that Democrats would push for significant reforms. The number of Democratic senators endorsing systemic changes to the way the Senate operated flourished — and that made GOP leaders awfully nervous.
That conversation appears to have helped change the trajectory of the 117th Congress. Some Republicans are even admitting as much on the record. Consider, for example, what GOP Sen. Todd Young of Indiana told Semafor last week:
Working across the aisle helped Republicans keep the filibuster alive in a 50-50 Senate by giving Joe Manchin, D-W.V. and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. wins they could point to while under pressure from their Democratic colleagues to junk it. “The place worked in part because you didn’t have leadership try to blow up deals,” Young said, praising Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Instead, we wanted them to get center-right or center-left deals that had broad appeal among the American people but as importantly, kept Sinema and Manchin happy so they didn’t join the ‘eliminate the filibuster’ crowd. It was a wise calculation.”
McConnell made related comments last week to NBC News. From the report:
His decision to work with Democrats has drawn heavy criticism from the right wing of the GOP.... But McConnell saw another benefit to playing ball. A “byproduct” of those bipartisan wins, he said, was that they “may have reassured Manchin and Sinema” that they didn’t need to nuke the filibuster to get things done.
Am I saying that talk of filibuster reform helped produce a series of bipartisan wins? Clearly, it didn’t hurt.