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McConnell's partisan vow on infrastructure bill has a silver lining

McConnell has done all of the major players a favor: Democrats can proceed with their infrastructure plan, knowing the GOP is sitting out the debate.
Image: Mitch McConnell
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

President Joe Biden called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this week to make a pitch in support of the new White House infrastructure plan. I don't imagine anyone will be too surprised to learn that the GOP senator wasn't immediately swayed to endorse the American Jobs Plan.

In fact, as Politico reported yesterday, McConnell expects to see total partisan opposition to the popular domestic proposal.

Mitch McConnell on Thursday ruled out support from his Republicans for President Joe Biden's new infrastructure plan, all but ensuring that the proposal will have to pass with lockstep Democratic unity in the Senate. At an event in Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader pilloried the $2.5 trillion infrastructure proposal as exacerbating the debt and raising taxes. McConnell said the bill would not get a single Senate GOP vote, despite the White House's bipartisan outreach.

"That package that they're putting together now, as much as we would like to address infrastructure, is not going to get support from our side," McConnell told reporters.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's probably because the Senate minority leader adopted a similar stance a few months ago on the American Rescue Plan: sure, McConnell said, a COVID relief package sounded nice, but the Democratic proposal wouldn't receive any support from the Republican side of the aisle.

Indeed, we can keep strolling down the same memory lane. As we recently discussed, observers need only look at McConnell's actions 12 years ago to get a sense of how the Kentucky Republican approaches his governing responsibilities when Democrats control the levers of federal power.

As I explained in my book, after President Barack Obama was inaugurated, Republicans were under some pressure to be responsible and constructive, with many pleading with GOP officials to resist the urge to slap away the Democratic president's outstretched hand. McConnell executed a different kind of plan, refusing to even consider bipartisan governing, even when Obama agreed with his opponents.

As the Kentuckian saw it, the public believes bipartisan bills are popular, so he rejected every element of the Democratic White House's agenda so voters would not see Obama succeeding. "We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals," McConnell told The Atlantic in 2011, referring to legislation backed by the White House.

McConnell was surprisingly candid on this point. "Public opinion can change, but it is affected by what elected officials do," the GOP leader told National Journal in March 2010. "Our reaction to what [Democrats] were doing had a lot to do with how the public felt about it. Republican unity in the House and Senate has been the major contributing factor to shifting American public opinion."

In other words, McConnell felt like he'd cracked a code: Republicans would make popular measures less popular by killing them. McConnell's plan was predicated on the idea that if he could just turn every debate into a partisan food fight, voters would be repulsed; Obama's outreach to Republicans would be perceived as a failure; progressive ideas would fail; and GOP candidates would be rewarded for their obstinance.

McConnell added soon after, in reference to his party's approach to policymaking, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.... Our single biggest political goal is to give our nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful."

As regular readers know, this is the senator's vision. It is not a secret. With Biden in the Oval Office, McConnell's priority is to position his party to retake the Senate majority after the 2022 midterms, and then elect a Republican president in 2024. Working constructively with a Democratic White House -- especially on a popular priority like infrastructure -- would do little to advance these objectives, which is precisely why he will choose a maximalist partisan course.

But -- and this is important -- McConnell isn't calling the shots now. He couldn't derail the Democrats' COVID relief package, and as things stand, Democrats can use the budget reconciliation process to circumvent the Senate minority leader on infrastructure, too.

What's more, public attitudes appear to be shifting. Wholesale Republican opposition to the American Relief Plan did not make it any less popular. McConnell's trick may well fall short again in the coming months: there's no reason to assume the American Jobs Plan will suffer in the face of blanket GOP opposition, either.

Indeed, as Rachel noted on last night's show, McConnell has arguably done all of the major players a favor: Democrats could spend weeks and months, desperately trying to find 10 Senate Republicans willing to consider an ambitious infrastructure plan, but the minority leader has effectively taken the possibility off the table.

And so, everyone involved can simply skip that step and move on with the process of crafting a worthwhile bill that would produce worthwhile results.

Postscript: The debate is just getting started in earnest, but the distinction between Republicans on Capitol Hill and Republicans elsewhere matters. The New York Times noted this morning, for example, that on the national level, "some local Republican officials are already embracing the prospect of millions of dollars in new infrastructure spending flowing into their communities, even as they are careful to express concern about new taxes."

Among the GOP officials voicing support for expansive federal infrastructure investments are Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer (R), Mesa Mayor John Giles (R), and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price (R). When Biden and his team start arguing that their infrastructure plan is plausibly bipartisan, keep this in mind.