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As Democrats try to govern, Republicans sit on the sidelines

Even if Democrats tried to engage their GOP colleagues on the Build Back Better agenda, it's hard to imagine how constructive the conversation could be.


As Joe Biden's presidency got underway, congressional Democrats focused nearly all of their legislative attention on the White House's Covid-relief package, called the American Rescue Plan. Republicans were invited to contribute to the legislative talks, but they largely declined.

Some GOP leaders instead turned their attention to Dr. Seuss, which the party's base seemed far more interested in.

Nearly eight months later, Democrats are moving forward with an ambitious domestic-policy agenda that would make a dramatic difference in the lives of millions of working families. Their Republican counterparts aren't spending their time talking about children's books, but as The New York Times reported, GOP lawmakers aren't engaged in the governing process, either.

Top Republican lawmakers who are usually mobbed by reporters walk unimpeded through the Capitol corridors while Democrats are chased down for any snippet of the current state of play.... [T]he one-sided legislating has rendered Republicans — who make up exactly half of the Senate and almost half of the House — virtually irrelevant as Congress debates potentially momentous legislation expected to cost at least $1.5 trillion.

"It is really odd," Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told the Times.

As a procedural matter, the Democratic majority simply doesn't need GOP support: The Build Back Better agenda is being pursued through the budget reconciliation process, which means Republicans can't block the measure with a filibuster. (The GOP used the same process to pass its package of regressive tax breaks in 2017.)

That said, there are plenty of conservative and centrist Democrats that would likely welcome Republican contributions to the process — especially since bipartisan bills tend to be more popular.

But that's clearly not happening, and it's worth appreciating why.

Part of the problem is that Republicans can't bring themselves to even consider the legislation on a conceptual level. Democrats are trying to expand social insurance programs and pay for the priorities by asking more from the wealthiest Americans and big corporations. For contemporary GOP lawmakers, the very idea is absurd.

About a month ago, a group of Senate Republicans wrote a joint letter to Democratic leaders, expressing concerns about proposed changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit. The letter was ignored in large part because those same GOP senators had already made clear they'd oppose the bill, even if their proposed changes were accepted.

It's one thing for lawmakers to trade policy changes for votes, which makes sense. It's something else for lawmakers to effectively say, "We'd like to see changes to the plan we have no intention of supporting."

But just as important is the fact that Republicans aren't up to the task anyway. It's a post-policy party that's given up on the idea that governing matters.

Last year, Republican officials decided they'd go without a party platform for the first time since 1854, and this year, the head of the party — a twice-impeached former president — has declared that the GOP's "single most important" priority is addressing his anti-election conspiracy theories about his 2020 defeat.

Even if Democrats tried to engage their Republican colleagues, it's difficult to imagine how constructive the conversation could be. Taking stock of the rationale of the Build Back Better framework, obvious questions have equally obvious answers: Does the GOP have a plan for universal preschool? How about child care subsidies? Where's the Republican Party's blueprints on child tax credits, ACA subsidies, housing aid, and Medicare expansion? Does the GOP's plan for combatting the climate crisis exist?

Ideally, American voters would be presented a choice between policy proposals presented by competing governing parties, each of which would be prepared to defend their solutions on the merits. In 2021, as my MSNBC colleague Michael A. Cohen recently put it, "[V]oters are being given two options: the policy ideas Democrats want to implement or not implementing those policy ideas."

Those waiting for the post-policy Republican Party to take governing seriously again will, alas, be waiting for a very long time.