Conventional wisdom has been that Republicans won’t negotiate in good faith with Joe Biden, that bipartisan talks were just a ploy to waste precious time, and that Mitch McConnell would sandbag any deal at the eleventh hour—like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. I’m starting to think it’s the other way around. Maybe Joe Biden is Lucy?
After a bipartisan group of senators announced the framework for a compromise $1.2 trillion COVID-19 bill, hopes were high that the fever had broken. At least, that was true until Biden made it clear that he would only sign the compromise bill if he simultaneously received what he wanted on a party-line reconciliation bill vote with the rest of his two-trillion-dollars-and-change “infrastructure” package that stretched the meaning of the word to cover a wishlist of Democratic priorities.
In other words, Biden announced a bipartisan deal with his right hand and yanked it back with his left. “If this [the bipartisan bill] is the only one that comes to me,” he said, “I’m not signing it. It’s in tandem.”
Biden didn’t misspeak. This was not a slip of the tongue. He went on to elaborate: “The bipartisan bill from the very beginning was understood, there’s going to have to be the second part of it. I’m not just signing the bipartisan bill and forgetting about the rest that I proposed. I proposed a significant piece of legislation in three parts and all three parts are equally important.”
Republicans don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt of late, but put yourself in their shoes. Here’s an analogy to help. Imagine a married couple is debating where to go on vacation. She wants to go to Paris for two weeks, but (to save money) he wants to drive to a mountain cabin for just one week. They settle on 10 days in Miami as a compromise that won’t bust the budget. It’s a done deal. Fine. But now imagine that she says, “By the way, I’m OK with the Miami vacation, but after that, I’m flying on to Paris for four days.”
That is essentially what Joe Biden and the Democrats are doing. They want to get the benefit of announcing a bipartisan deal, but they also want to ram everything else through unilaterally. Heads: Democrats win. Tails: Democrats win. During his first press conference announcing the deal, Biden said, “You know, a lot of us go back a long way, where we’re used to doing one thing: Give each other our word and that’s the end… Nobody questions it. They have my word, I’ll stick with what they proposed, and they’ve given me their word as well. So, where I come from, that’s good enough for me.” But just two hours later, his word—and the implicit understanding of the agreement—changed.
“Biden is playing with fire and he may end up getting burned. Words have consequences.”
As one Republican aide told Politico, “In endorsing the deal, Biden praised the group for ‘keeping their word,’ but then immediately broke his.”
And Biden’s not the only one making ultimatums. “Let me be really clear on this,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “We will not take up a bill in the House until the Senate passes the bipartisan bill and a reconciliation bill. If there is no bipartisan bill, then we’ll just go when the Senate passes a reconciliation bill.”
Now, it’s entirely possible that Biden’s bluffing or just saying what he needs to say to appease progressives. But he’s also playing with fire and may end up getting burned. Words have consequences. In this case, the president of the United States is giving leverage to anyone on the right who wants to blow up this already tenuous deal.
“After the first one, the president walks out with a bipartisan group and blesses an infrastructure bill that many of my members are quite optimistic about. And then after all of those people depart the White House, the president goes out for the second press conference and says unless we can pass my tax bill, I won’t sign the infrastructure bill,” Mitch McConnell said.
He’s not wrong.
“I’m not doing that. That’s extortion! I’m not going to do that,” Lindsay Graham said, telling Politico not long after leaving that first press conference with the president that he was not aware there would be two bills.
“Most Republicans could not have known that,” he said. “There’s no way. You look like a fucking idiot now… I don’t mind bipartisanship, but I’m not going to do a suicide mission.”
It’s hard for me to believe that, as a precondition for agreeing to this deal to begin with, Republicans wouldn’t have extracted a backroom pledge from Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema that the duo would either oppose the reconciliation bill or set a bar on the amount of subsequent spending they would support. Republicans had to know that this was a possibility (indeed, a more devious strategy might have been for Biden to only mention the reconciliation part of the bill after pocketing 60 votes for the bipartisan bill).
But if we are to take Biden at his word, he’s “not signing” the bipartisan bill unless he also signs the reconciliation bill “in tandem.” And if we are to take Pelosi at hers, the bill won’t even come up in the House. I can’t imagine Republicans will go along with this—nor should they.
Biden comes across as wanting mutual respect and old-fashioned bipartisan compromise, but don’t forget the way he steamrolled Republicans right out of the gate. This is again looking like the performance of bipartisanship but the exercise of raw power.
The problem, though, is that Biden is the one who needs bipartisanship. He doesn’t have the votes to govern on raw power. He doesn’t have 6o votes to do things according to regular order, and he doesn’t always have the 50 votes to do them via a simple majority. Biden should be the last person trying to upend this compromise. Why would he want to sacrifice the chance of being a president who can actually still bring Republicans and Democrats together to pass big, bipartisan legislation?
I suppose it’s possible that Biden is playing a high-stakes game of three-dimensional chess. Maybe he’s counting on the perception that Republicans were the obstructionists to persuade Manchin and Sinema to agree on a large reconciliation package after Republicans bail.
But it seems pretty clear right now that Biden and the Dems are the ones playing Lucy, which could cause Manchin and Sinema to stick with their Republican negotiating partners.
This deal is a moving target. There’s still a chance that things will come together. A lot of moderate Democrats presumably want an infrastructure bill, but they also do not want to spend trillions.
This was always going to be a game of Jenga, and now Joe Biden is shaking the table. If this deal falls apart, it will confirm the notion that Congress is both broken and dysfunctional. The only surprise may be that the person responsible for sabotaging Joe Biden’s agenda is Joe Biden.