Biden Goes Bipartisan by Courting GOP Voters, Not Just Lawmakers


In Washington there are three kinds of victories. Moral victories, where you lose but make a point. Pyrrhic victories, where you win but suffer greatly for it. And what you might call momentum victories, where success opens the way to more success. Those, of course, are the best.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Biden signed on March 11 looks like a momentum victory. Polls show it’s popular with Republican voters as well as Democrats. Coming early in Biden’s term, it marks him as a doer and a force to be reckoned with. Now Biden will try to ride that momentum to passage of his next big legislative priority, Build Back Better, a vast initiative that’s likely to include funding for infrastructure, green investment, manufacturing, support for caregivers, and racial justice.

To notch another victory, though, Biden will have to change tactics. Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan with zero Republican votes by using the reconciliation procedure, which protected it against a Republican filibuster. But Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, is refusing to consider Build Back Better under reconciliation, so it will require the votes of at least 10 Republican senators—plus all 50 Democrats—to overcome a filibuster by the GOP minority.

Biden Goes Bipartisan by Courting GOP Voters, Not Just Lawmakers

Biden will have to be bipartisan, or at least perceived as such. For him the best outcome would be a bill that has Republican fingerprints but retains most of what Democrats want. “Great legislation that lasts the test of time is bipartisan. The Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, they’re unquestioned,” says Mark Strand, president of the nonprofit Congressional Institute. “Laws that aren’t bipartisan are immediately subject to being repealed, stripped down, the next time another party takes power.”

But Biden’s plan calls for a lot more spending on top of historic spending on pandemic relief (chart). If Republicans don’t play along, things get more complicated. Should the GOP rebuff Build Back Better, Manchin and other conservative Democrats might be persuaded to allow the bill to be considered under reconciliation, requiring only a simple majority in each house of Congress. But that could be a Pyrrhic victory if a liberal bill that’s passed on party lines allows Republicans to portray Democrats as socialist tree-huggers. That could contribute to the Democrats’ losing control of the House and Senate in the midterm elections in 2022. Many Democratic strategists continue to believe that their party’s big loss in the 2010 midterms was blowback from their partisan passage of the Affordable Care Act, although the weak economy also played a role.

Biden Goes Bipartisan by Courting GOP Voters, Not Just Lawmakers

Alternatively, Biden could remain bipartisan and settle for Build Back Slightly Better—essentially a conventional infrastructure bill focused on highways and bridges. Democrats could then blame Republicans for thwarting their more ambitious goals. That would be at best a moral victory: possibly tactically useful, but unsatisfying. A strategy of winning by losing would also anger the progressive wing of Biden’s own party.

The path to victory for Biden is narrow in this period of hyperpartisanship, when even the routine congressional task of naming post offices has become politicized. Republicans may try to stall Biden until 2022, when they hope to take back the House and Senate.

The path involves treating Republican leaders respectfully while also appealing directly to their constituents, making it painful for the GOP to be the Party of No. Ramping up pressure on the opposition, Biden told ABC News on March 16 that he’d support requiring a “talking filibuster” to block legislation.

For the American Rescue Plan, Biden invited Republican lawmakers to dinner to hear their ideas, decided they were too small, and went his own way. A Pew Research Center survey in early March found that 70% of respondents supported the plan—91% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning respondents along with 41% of Republicans and Republican-leaning respondents. A Morning Consult/Politico poll of registered voters showed even more bipartisan support. When a plan similar to Biden’s was described to voters, 59% of Republicans said they supported it. In a different group that was told it was in fact a Democratic plan, 53% of Republicans supported it.

The White House has been explicit that bipartisanship means appealing to voters, not just lawmakers, of both parties. “Bipartisanship is not determined by a single ZIP code in Washington, D.C.,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on March 5. GOP leaders keep needling Dems over Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head but never managed to brand the American Rescue Plan as a Democratic giveaway of taxpayer money. “They can’t conjure polarization out of thin air,” says Mike Konczal, director of the Progressive Thought program at the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute.

Biden Goes Bipartisan by Courting GOP Voters, Not Just Lawmakers

Biden is likely to follow that same strategy in rolling out Build Back Better. He’ll propose taxes to help pay for it—and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says there’s no chance Republicans would back any tax increases—but the levies will be focused on corporations and people earning $400,000 or more a year, an approach that polls well with rank-and-file Republicans as well as Democrats.

Infrastructure is an ideal second campaign for Biden because it’s widely popular, says Thomas Patterson, a Harvard professor of government and the press. Republicans hate potholes as much as Democrats do. Biden predicted Republicans will come around to supporting popular policies, telling ABC News, “I think that epiphany is going to come between now and 2022.” Getting votes for Build Back Better got easier on March 17 when House Republicans voted to join their Democratic colleagues in bringing back the system of earmarks, which allows members to propose projects in their own districts.

The Beltway label for bills that have no chance of passage is DOA: dead on arrival. Members introduce such bills not out of stubbornness but to get the party to “coalesce around a set of ideas that you hope to pass in the future,” says Jeremy Gelman, a University of Nevada at Reno political scientist. That’s not where Biden is right now. He needs wins that build on wins—momentum victories. “If you don’t win, you can’t make public policy,” Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff and later mayor of Chicago, once said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to win, OK?”

One hopeful, vestigial example of bipartisanship in Washington is the 2-year-old House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, chaired by Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington state, with William Timmons, a South Carolina Republican, as vice chair. Democrats and Republicans on the committee went on a retreat together and alternated seats in hearings instead of sitting apart. The House has already adopted several of the 97 reforms they proposed.

The Problem Solvers Caucus, also in the House, is another role model. It was instrumental in shaping the consensus that led to passage of the $908 billion coronavirus relief bill in December. It’s co-chaired by Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat, and Tom Reed, a Republican from western New York. Reed’s Twitter feed is full of Republican talking points, blasting the American Rescue Plan as “a liberal wish list.” But in a joint interview on March 15, Reed said, “Josh is my closest friend in Congress and one of my closest friends even outside of Congress.” Gottheimer returned the praise: “We spend our time looking for places we can agree, recognizing that we’re not going to agree on everything, with a principled approach of putting country first,” he said. Gottheimer added that he thinks “we can get a strong infrastructure bill done through regular order,” that is, without reconciliation, and Reed said, “Amen.”

Good feelings can’t be willed into existence. Democrats are angry that most congressional Republicans voted against the certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory and haven’t forgiven them for trying to block Obama’s agenda. Republicans are channeling their constituents’ inchoate rage that the system is rigged against them. But Congress simply can’t function in its current state of cold enmity under the shadow of the horrific Jan. 6 invasion. Something has to change. With Build Back Better, Biden has a new opportunity to offer the bipartisanship that he lived as a senator and promised as a candidate. Republicans will then have to decide whether to reciprocate. It’s not just Biden’s momentum that’s at stake.

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