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Opinion | Mitch McConnell Doesn’t Get to Define ‘Bipartisan’

3 min read

If 70 percent of Americans support a policy, including most Republicans, it is bipartisan — regardless of what some senators think about it.

By Michelle Cottle

Ms. Cottle is a member of the editorial board.

Among the more farcical developments of the early Biden presidency has been congressional Republicans’ newfound passion for bipartisanship.

After years of Republican lawmakers treating Democrats’ concerns with all the respect of used Kleenex, reasonable observers might have assumed the G.O.P. disdained cross-party cooperation. Few legislators practice partisan obstructionism with the zeal of the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell.

But with Democrats now holding unified, if narrow, control of government, Republicans have had an epiphany. Bipartisanship has become their North Star, their Holy Grail. Democrats need to aggressively move to reclaim the concept in a way that better serves not only their political aims but the American people.

Calls for bipartisanship occurred the moment President Biden took office. The early wave of executive orders he signed spurred howls from Republicans, who decried such unilateral action as a thumb in the eye of unity.

Mr. Biden’s staffing choices are being subjected to a comity litmus test as well. The nomination of Neera Tanden to head the Office of Management and Budget has stalled in the Senate — not because Ms. Tanden is ideologically radical or unqualified, but because she is known as a meanie on social media. Her Twitter pugilism demonstrates “exactly the kind of animosity that President Biden has pledged to transcend,” sniffed Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who is among those Ms. Tanden has attacked. A spokeswoman for Senator Mitt Romney of Utah expressed similar concern about the threat Ms. Tanden posed to “comity and respect.” Even Senator Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia, has gotten in on the action, declaring his opposition to Ms. Tanden in the interest of charting “a new bipartisan course.”

But it’s the push to pass more Covid relief that seems to have really reminded Republicans how much they cherish bipartisanship. They charge that the president’s $1.9 trillion plan is too costly and not targeted enough. Few members of the minority in either chamber are expected to support it. The $600 billion counteroffer made by a group of Republican senators did not come close to meeting Mr. Biden halfway — much less meeting the magnitude of the crisis — and some Biden aides suspect Republicans are mostly looking to bog down negotiations, as in the Obama years. So Democrats are set to pass a bill using a maneuver known as reconciliation, which would allow the bill to pass with a simple majority of votes — i.e., without any Republicans.

During the Trump presidency, Republicans used reconciliation to pass tax cuts, and they tried, unsuccessfully, to use it to repeal key elements of Obamacare. Now they are decrying the process as a thuggish affront to bipartisanship. Power-drunk Democrats aren’t even interested in compromise, they charge with conspicuous umbrage.

Senator Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican, has been especially outspoken on the matter. He recently lamented to CNN’s Dana Bash that Democrats passing a relief bill through reconciliation would “poison the well for other bipartisanship we will need on so many issues.” For those keeping track at home, Mr. Portman was among the senators who backed using reconciliation for the 2017 tax cuts and for gutting Obamacare.

Unencumbered by self-awareness, Mr. Portman expanded on his concerns in a Feb. 23 op-ed. “Biden faces an early choice,” Mr. Portman lectured. “He can act on the hopeful bipartisan rhetoric of his inaugural address — and his presidential campaign — or contradict that message by trying to jam a $1.9 trillion bill through reconciliation with no G.O.P. support.”

Mr. Biden indeed ran on a pledge to unify America — to start draining the partisan poison from the body politic. It was a winning vision for a weary public. Republicans are clearly aiming to exploit that vision in their quest to block Mr. Biden’s agenda. Because if Republican lawmakers don’t sign on to a proposal, then a plan isn’t bipartisan. And for Mr. Biden to proceed with a plan that isn’t bipartisan, well, that’s a betrayal of his promise to the American people.

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