After COVID’s agreement, Biden’s quest for bipartisanship seems less naive

There was a lot to dislike about the pandemic relief bill that Congress passed this week. It was very small, even at $ 900 billion. It cuts out supplementary unemployment payments after just 11 weeks. It includes a bag of unnecessary items, including a restored tax break for business meals popularly known as the “three-martini lunch”, a favorite of President Trump.

But the bill had an important virtue: it was a genuine commitment, a species rarely seen in Washington. Even more intriguing, it was based in part on the work of a bipartisan cabal of centrist senators who fled the entrenched positions of their parties and decided to do something on their own.

These rebel senators can be useful allies for President-elect Joe Biden as he tries to revive the lost art of bipartisan legislation.

“This is a model for the challenging work that our country faces,” said Biden on Monday, praising the work of senators. “In November, the American people spoke clearly that now is a time for action and commitment. I am excited to see members of Congress respond to that message, cross the corridor and work together ”.

Translation: Maybe, just maybe, I can make this bipartisan thing work.

In a moment of optimism during his presidential campaign, Biden predicted that Republicans would experience “an epiphany” after Trump left and returned to the courtesy he remembered from his early days in the Senate.

But few signs of incipient epiphany appeared. For weeks, many Republicans refused to acknowledge that Biden won.

Meanwhile, as the deadline for the benefits of COVID-19 approached, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell refused to give up his basic $ 550 billion offer in new aid, a number less than Trump. I wanted.

Enter the renegade senators.

The morning after election day, Joe Manchin III, a Democrat from central West Virginia, called his friend Susan Collins, a moderate Maine Republican who won reelection under strong Democratic opposition.

“I called Susan to congratulate her, and it turned into a conversation about the COVID account,” Manchin told me. “We agreed that it was an emergency, that we had to do something, because they” – referring to the leaders of the two parties – “were doing nothing”.

A few nights later, a hurriedly recruited group gathered for an Italian takeaway dinner at Senator Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) home on Capitol Hill. (“Indoors, but well spaced,” said a senator. “And the windows were open.”)

In addition to Manchin, Collins and Murkowski, participants included Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) And Mark Warner (D-Va.).

They agreed to draft a COVID relief bill on their own, adhering to elements with which senators on both sides could agree. To make the job easier, they adopted a suggestion from Durbin to make it a short-term emergency package, which would help keep the price low. More senators, including Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Jeanne Shaheen (DN.H.), soon joined.

On December 1, the new bipartisan group released a $ 908 billion bill with nine sponsors: four Republicans, four Democrats and one independent. Biden blessed him quickly. And suddenly, after months of paralysis, the party leaders – especially McConnell, the most obstinate – were on the defensive, trying to explain why they hadn’t struck a deal.

The most important thing was not in the account details. The important thing was to demonstrate that a bipartisan agreement was possible – and that, to that end, a significant number of senators were ready to act independently of their party leaders.

In the end, McConnell, Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), worked out the details. But the $ 900 billion deal they produced was close enough to the bipartisan proposal that Manchin bring the fantasy of West Virginia to the group’s last meeting.

Manchin told me that he is ready to try more bipartisan legislation next year.

“We will inject ourselves anywhere we find useful,” he said. “I hope it is infrastructure, because infrastructure can unite our country,” he added.

They will also have the opportunity to work again to alleviate the pandemic. The $ 900 billion deal ends in the spring.

If Democrats do not win the two Senate elections in Georgia on January 5, McConnell will remain the majority leader. Biden’s chances of raising taxes on the rich, expanding Obamacare and passing broad immigration reform will decrease from lows to zero.

And even if Democrats win both contests in Georgia, it will produce a 50-50 Senate – a situation in which any senator can tip the balance.

Skeptics will continue to say that Biden’s sunny conversation about bipartisanship seems naive – and for the most part, they will be right.

But in the fight to alleviate the pandemic, Collins, Romney, Murkowski and their colleagues showed that at least some Republicans are willing to give bipartisanship a chance.

If politics is the art of the possible, they have managed to expand, even slightly, the definition of the possible.