Republicans, led by the “Grim Reaper” of the Senate legislative graveyard, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, seem to think that the best way for them to heal their divided party is to unite in opposition to Joe Biden’s plan to tackle the public health and economic crisis that he inherited from Republicans last month, i.e., a return to Mitch McConnell’s policy of “total obstruction” from the Obama years.
Axios reports that “Mike Donilon, senior adviser to President Biden, argues in a memo to White House senior staff that GOP opposition to the COVID rescue package would shrink the party’s already declining national support.” White House memo: Obstruction will cost GOP:
What they’re saying: “There seems to be a growing conventional wisdom that it is either politically smart — or, at worst, cost-free — for the GOP to adopt an obstructionist, partisan, base-politics posture,” Donilon writes in the two-page memo, obtained by Axios. “However, there is lots of evidence that the opposite is true: … this approach has been quite damaging to them.”
Between the lines: The memo cites a Morning Consult poll showing a Biden approval rating of 62% with registered voters. Just 23% of registered voters think the Republican Party is going in the right direction, while 63% say the party is on the wrong track.
- Other data points: Tens of thousands of Republicans across the country have switched party affiliation since the Capitol riot, the N.Y. Times reports. The Economist/YouGov polling finds a decline in voters calling themselves Republicans since November (from 42% to 37%).
- “[Y]ou see a party shrinking its appeal in this country — not growing it,” Donilon writes. “Opposing President Biden’s American Rescue Plan only exacerbates Republicans’ predicament. … [T]he GOP is putting itself at odds with a rescue package supported overwhelmingly by the American people.”
Polls put support for Biden’s American Rescue Plan at 68% (Quinnipiac) or more.
- Donilon called opposition to the plan “politically isolating”: “The country is looking for action. For progress. For solutions. On COVID. On the economy. You see it and hear it all over the country. Voters are hurting.”
The Washington Post reports that Biden is winning Republican support for his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan. Just not in Washington.
According a recent CBS News poll, 70 percent of Republicans support the Democratic Covid bill. That includes 66 percent of self-identified “conservatives” and 63 percent of Trump voters. And a survey from The Hill found that 60 percent of Republicans are fine with Democrats using the reconciliation process to pass the Covid bill along party lines if necessary.
Before departing the White House for a town hall event in Wisconsin on Tuesday, President Biden was asked about Republican opposition to his COVID relief package.
“Mitch McConnell said that opposing COVID relief will unify Republicans. What do you say to that?” a reporter asked Biden.
“It may unify Republicans, but it will hurt America badly,” the president responded.
“It may unify Republicans, but it will hurt America badly," Pres. Biden says when asked by a reporter outside the White House if opposing COVID-19 relief would unify Republicans. https://t.co/KpboCpIBQb pic.twitter.com/lX6NwBxVjs
— ABC News (@ABC) February 16, 2021
Why do Republicans hate America?
The real threat to the COVID relief bill comes not from Republicans, but from certain Democratic senators who are desperate to be seen as holding the keys to the Senate in passing President Biden’s agenda, like Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema (not a committee chairman) and West Virginia senator Joe Manchin (Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources).
With friends like these …
CNN reports “West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has privately informed President Joe Biden that he won’t join any Democratic efforts to force through provisions in his economic rescue package if they are ruled in violation of strict Senate budget restrictions,” i.e., the Byrd Rule, the latest warning sign for Biden’s push for a hike to the federal minimum wage. ‘Hell or high water:’ Manchin tells Biden he won’t back push to skirt Senate rules on relief bill:
Manchin’s declaration is significant because it means that Democrats won’t be able to maneuver around an adverse ruling from the Senate’s parliamentarian without risking their chances of passing Biden’s massive $1.9 trillion rescue package in a Senate split 50-50 between the two parties.
CNN’s reporting is wrong, see below.
At issue is the Senate’s long-standing Byrd Rule, which prohibits including “extraneous” measures as part of the budget process that Democrats are employing to send the Covid-19 relief package to Biden’s desk by early March. Democrats’ push to include an increase of the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour could run afoul of the Byrd Rule, though Senate supporters like Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont are battling to keep it in the legislation.
If the Senate’s parliamentarian finds a provision in violation of the Byrd Rule, it would require 60 senators to overturn that ruling in order to keep the extraneous provision in the underlying bill, an extremely high hurdle to clear. [This is wrong, see below]. But an idea now being advanced by progressive activists is for Vice President Kamala Harris — or whomever else is presiding in the Senate at the time — to simply ignore the ruling of the parliamentarian and let the contested provision stay in the bill, a controversial move that Senate experts say has not been employed since 1975 by then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.
Yet if Democrats were to go that route and ignore the advice of the parliamentarian, it’s bound to cost them the support of at least Manchin — and potentially others, like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat. [As long as 41 Democrats hold firm, they are not needed. See below.]
“My only vote is to protect the Byrd Rule: Hell or high water,” Manchin told CNN. “Everybody knows that. I’m fighting to defend the Byrd Rule. The President knows that.”
First of all, some arcane Senate rule is more important to you than millions of Americans suffering through a public health and economic crisis during this Coronavirus pandemic? This statement is morally bankrupt, and should disqualify you from serving in the Senate.
Secondly, David Nir reported at Daily Kos that:
Monday brought good news for those fighting to increase America’s woefully inadequate minimum wage when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) sent a letter to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders concluding that such a hike would have “broad economic effects” and impact most areas of the federal budget. Even better, the CBO said that a minimum wage boost would affect the economy more extensively than two measures Republicans passed in 2017 as part of their tax bill: the elimination of the penalty for not maintaining health insurance (better known as the individual mandate), and a program to allow oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
So stick that in your Byrd Rule, Manchin.
Here’s where it all comes together: The GOP’s 2017 tax bill was passed via reconciliation, with just 51 votes—all from Republicans—in favor. Because the repeal of the individual mandate and the opening of the wildlife refuge to drilling were part of this legislation, they each had to pass muster under the Byrd Rule (or as serious Capitol Hill wonks like to call it, they survived a “Byrd bath”).
You can see where this is going—and why Sanders specifically asked the CBO to compare a minimum wage increase to those two Republican-backed measures. If ending the individual mandate and permitting oil exploration came out clean from their Byrd bath, then surely upping the minimum wage, with its far greater impact, should as well, clearing it for inclusion in the reconciliation bill Democrats are gearing up to pass.
So these obstructionist Democrats may get bailed out by a favorable ruling from the parliamentarian that the minimum wage provision the House will put into the COVID relief bill qualifies under the Byrd Rule for the reconciliation process (and it does), so we can all move on to passing the COVID relief bill.
But what if the parliamentarian somehow rules the other way?
“Should,” however, is not the same as “will,” which brings us to the question of who exactly decides whether a proposal complies with the Byrd Rule. It’s generally said that this judgment call falls to the parliamentarian, an appointed official who advises the Senate on all matters of procedure. Since 2012, the position has been held by attorney Elizabeth MacDonough, who determined that the individual mandate repeal and the wildlife refuge drilling measure were both suitable for reconciliation.
MacDonough, however, does not get the last word. That right is reserved for senators themselves—the parliamentarian’s role is only advisory, and the Senate may reject her advice. That’s precisely what Democrats should do if MacDonough, for whatever reason, decides that increasing the minimum wage somehow does not satisfy the Byrd Rule.
The Senate’s presiding officer, who in this case would likely be Vice President Kamala Harris (but could be any sitting senator), can simply decide that a minimum wage hike is appropriate for reconciliation and allow it to become part of the overall package. And this is where the Senate’s supermajority rules—which Republicans are so eager to weaponize in the service of obstructing the Democrats’ entire agenda—can in fact be turned around on the GOP and used against them.
In order to overturn the ruling of the presiding officer, it takes 60 votes. In other words, to override Harris and strip the minimum wage increase from the reconciliation bill, all 50 Republican senators would have to band together and find 10 Democrats willing to join them. While moderates like Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema [and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin] have expressed opposition to bypassing the parliamentarian, Democrats don’t need their support as long as 41 of them hold firm. And they would, because it’s all but impossible to imagine a fifth of the Democratic caucus siding with Republicans to uphold an obscure procedural tradition at the expense of a wildly popular measure that will dramatically improve the lives of millions.
This sort of hardball hopefully won’t be necessary, but it’s by no means unprecedented, and Democrats should keep this option in reserve. Americans are counting on it.
So Senators Sinema and Manchin are not the keys to the Senate, as they apparently somehow imagine themselves to be.
David Nir’s analysis is backed up by Alex Pareene at The New Republic. Call Kyrsten Sinema’s Bluff (excerpt):
Centrist Democrats representing vulnerable seats have a very strange tendency to search for reasons not to have to do popular things. It would be understandable if moderates like Sinema refused to follow the party when it pursued unpopular or controversial goals, but in real life, the reverse happens regularly. Prior to Sinema coming out against the wage proposal, her fellow conservative Democrat Joe Manchin publicly waffled on the wildly popular proposal to send Americans $2,000 stimulus checks.
In this case, hiking the minimum wage is not only nationally popular; it is almost definitely more popular than the senator herself in her home state of Arizona. Both were on the ballot recently, in fact. In 2016, Arizonans voted on Proposition 206, which raised the state minimum wage to $12. It passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote, a far greater percentage than either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton received that year. Two years later, Sinema would win her first statewide election by about eight points less than the wage hike measure received. Hundreds of thousands more Arizonans voted to raise the minimum wage than to make Kyrsten Sinema a senator. The idea that she would sink a proposal to do the same on procedural grounds should make no political sense at all.
Now I should be clear that Sinema isn’t officially opposing the idea of raising the minimum wage. She is arguing that it shouldn’t be done in the Covid-19 relief package. That certainly sounds reasonable—and it would make perfect sense if Sinema didn’t also oppose eliminating the legislative filibuster rule. As she explicitly told Politico, “I want to restore the 60-vote threshold for all elements of the Senate’s work.” Her position, then, is that regardless of what the minimum wage should be, in an ideal world, the Democrats should not be able to raise it. (She’d likely quibble with this characterization, but if your position is that Democrats should find a way to pass a minimum wage hike with 10 Republican votes, your position is that Democrats shouldn’t pass a minimum wage hike.)
It is irksome to read any piece of journalism premised on access to a powerful figure in which the reporter does not appear to have challenged any of their subject’s dubious or contradictory statements. One finds oneself arguing with the text, and wondering why the author didn’t raise the same issues. Reading a senator stating a desire to “restore” a “60-vote threshold for all Senate business” makes one want to know what she believes the origin and purpose of that threshold to be, and how it came to be a sacred Senate tradition despite not being in place for most of Senate history. [Mitch McConnell forced 60 votes for all Senate business as part of his policy of “total obstruction.”]
Some of what Sinema says seems designed to irritate liberals—again, many congressional moderates seem to prefer aggravating the left to using their leverage to do popular things—so statements like, “It’s not effective to pressure me on anything” should come as no surprise. This is the voice of a person who wants to determine the limits of what is currently politically possible, and who believes she has the power to do so.
* * *
Sinema, I think, is going public in order to get Schumer and the rest to join Biden in preemptively conceding. Because—here’s the good news—she does not actually have the power to sink the measure by withholding her support, unless she is willing to vote against the entire relief bill, thus killing it.
The budget reconciliation process is a way to pass legislation with a simple majority in the Senate. There are certain arcane rules about what kinds of bills can and can’t be passed through this process. It is the job of the Senate parliamentarian (currently Elizabeth MacDonough) to advise the Senate on whether any given piece of legislation follows or breaks those rules. The parliamentarian may decide, as Sinema has, that the minimum wage hike doesn’t qualify as something that could be passed through reconciliation. And if that happens? “There is no instance in which I would overrule a parliamentarian’s decision,” Sinema told Politico. So Sinema’s position is clear. Less clear is why she thinks it matters.
Here’s what I mean: If the parliamentarian rules against including the minimum wage proposal in reconciliation, and Democrats decide to overrule the parliamentarian, Sinema would still be unable to block its inclusion in the bill. The parliamentarian has no official power; the Vice President, as president of the senate, decides whether to overrule the parliamentarian. It then takes 60 votes to overrule the vice president’s decision.
In other words, if the parliamentarian rules that the wage hike shouldn’t be in the bill (which is far from a given), and the vice president overrules her, Sinema couldn’t stop Harris. Even if she got Joe Manchin and Angus King and Mark Kelly and Jeanne Shaheen on board, they would not be able to block the inclusion of the minimum wage proposal. Their only other option would be to sink the entire package over one of its most popular elements.
Kyrsten Sinema [and Joe Manchin] is bluffing. It’s a bluff Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris should call.
Unfortunately, President Biden appears willing to violate the first rule of negotiations: never negotiate against yourself. Biden indicates he’s open to negotiation on $15 minimum wage: “Biden suggested he could be open to a longer phase-in than the current plan of five years in Democrats’ legislation. He also argued that phasing gradually up to $15 could be beneficial while having less potential impact on business owners.”
Why, Joe? You hold all the cards right now. Unless Sens. Sinema and Manchin are willing to aid and abet Mitch McConnells’ policy of total obstruction with a Jim Crow era filibuster to kill the entire COVID relief bill – and I don’t believe that they are willing to commit political suicide – there is no need to negotiate against yourself.
These senators should sit down, shut up, and do their damn job for the American people. Your play for media attention is over.