About That Bipartisan Goal – Forget it

The Republicans Have Made Their Stance Clear – And the Clock is Ticking


How Important is Bipartisanship?

Well, that is an interesting question – depends on who you ask. Generically, most people would, in a neutral setting, say it counts and they would like to see it as a part of governance. Makes sense in a complex society, doesn’t it? But we are not in a neutral environment and have not been for some time.

Joe Biden certainly thinks it is important. It is in his DNA. Decades of experience tell him big things can be done in a solid manner when bipartisan legislation is passed. But he too appears to increasingly, if reluctantly, understand the Senate he knew is long gone.

This does not mean that bipartisanship is gone, but it does mean it has new definitions and is not the priority it once was. In fact, a few bits of good bipartisan legislation is being passed, but it is mostly at the margins

What is the Public Saying?

Interestingly, bipartisanship has a history of pretty good popular support, but that is dramatically less so today, on two fronts. On the Republican side, it is considered weak and traitorous to seek comprise. Unless, of course, the Democrats are doing the compromising. The moaning from the GOP about the absence of bipartisanship today is about the Democrats refusing to sacrifice substance to get a deal.

The other front is really interesting. A large percentage of Americans are interested first and foremost in getting important things done and major legislation written into law. They really don’t care if it is bipartisan or not – they just want it done. Patience is running out on efforts to get 60 votes in the Senate for anything of substance.

A SHORT History of the Filibuster

The filibuster is bound up in our history of looking for ways to protect the minority in Congress. In a sense, it is rooted in the creation of the Senate, an institution that gives disproportionate power to thinly populated states.

In the same way, the filibuster was seen as a way to foster the Senate as The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body (that reads like a sad joke now, doesn’t it?). The idea was to ensure the majority did not run rough shod over a minority. It was designed to force compromise.

But the history has not been a good one. Time and again, over the decades, this has mostly been a tool for delaying or derailing progressive legislation. It has become a tool for the tyranny of the majority.

This has become even more the case in recent years, when just the threat of a filibuster stops progress. No one even has to actually stand and speak for hours. If the filibuster continues, that at least may change. There is talk of making people do the hard work or give up.

Why It Is Time to Kill the Filibuster

Joe Manchin gets a lot of heat (as he should) for defending the filibuster, but he is not actually alone. Estimates run as high as 10 Democratic senators who are queasy about killing the filibuster. Most would be worried about what that means when the Democrats are in the minority.

But two stark, clear shots have been fired in this Congress, not to mention similar events in the last Congress, that make the filibuster indefensible. Even Manchin may be coming around.

First, McConnell said for the record that his sole focus is opposing everything the Biden administration proposes. Everything, right out of the gate. How does one proceed to bipartisanship on that basis? One does not. Keeping the filibuster just gives McConnell the power to obstruct.

Second, the January 6 Commission vote. The Democrats gave away the store on this one to get 60 votes. They offered the Republicans obscene amounts of sway over how that commission would organize and operate. To not have a commission is as unacceptable an outcome for democracy as one could imagine. Yet only 6 Republicans said yes, a 7th was absent said he would have voted yes.

On the most important and fundamental decision imaginable, with everything imaginable granted to the Republicans, only 14% of them voted yes. Only about half the Republicans needed said yes. How do you think votes on the economy, taxes, voting rights, and rebuilding the country would do with this bunch? Think there are 10 or more of them anywhere, on any of this? Yeah, me neither.

About That Ticking Clock

 Biden and team have about a year left to get the big things done. If they do, the country will be far better off and Democrats stand a decent chance of holding on to Congress, albeit thinly so. If the big bills do not pass, they will lose at least one house and none of the important work – none of it – will get done.

 The Administration is doing some admirable work in reaching out to individual members of Congress and in building support in the states and local communities. This could lead to a different type of bipartisanship, reminiscent of the New Deal. Time will tell.

But the results of these efforts may show up more in the midterms than in the current legislative agenda. It appears the Democrats will need to go it alone for now and make their case to the country based on the results.

 Leadership Tests Always Come

This is arguably the first big test (Domestic) facing Biden since he took office (the pandemic was already here, waiting for him. And for the record, he pretty well hit home runs on that one).

But this one is different, and it will be definitive for the long term. How it is met will largely determine the rest of this term, and the history of this Administration. One  cannot overstate how important this test is, for all of us.

By the way, that first big foreign crisis still looms. My bet remains on Russia and Ukraine (notice that the Russians started moving troops back to the border last week?) or China and Taiwan. Decisions in both theaters could turn in part on how strong Biden looks coming off of these domestic challenges.

Let’s hope the Administration is up to it and our wavering senators get real and deal with where we are. Do what needs to be done.

              Bill Clontz

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