Unless the Republican Party is comfortable with the future of conservatism riding on the shoulders of Senator Joe Manchin, it’s time for the GOP to try governing rather than obstruction.
Senate Republicans are very fortunate that Senator Manchin (D-WV) is a principled moderate who is standing up against many in his party trying to drag him left on policy issues and filibuster reform. He has held his ground so far, but every time the GOP behaves unreasonably, they make his position that much more difficult to defend. It isn’t hard to imagine that at some point, he will find it politically untenable to advocate for bipartisanship when not even ten Republican Senators are willing to participate.
The GOP’s first opportunity for bipartisan legislating went by the boards with the COVID-19 relief package. While 10 Republican Senators put forth a 600-billion-dollar counteroffer, it didn’t meet the moment. Even Republican voters found it inadequate, and generally, voting against a broadly popular giveaway to most of the country isn’t a good way to get votes. Reconciliation gave Manchin and the Democrats a way out of the room without nuking the filibuster, but there are a limited number of “Get Out of Jail Free” reconciliation cards left in the deck.
Infrastructure is up now, and most of the GOP wants to run the same playbook. Yes, they’ve put another counteroffer on the table, but there does not appear to be any serious discussion of compromise on tax rates or other avenues with which to pay for the bill. Republicans seem content to rail against the more progressive portions of Biden’s infrastructure plan, arguing over what constitutes infrastructure rather than aggressively dealing with areas of agreement. If they refuse to engage, the outcomes are limited to either forcing another reconciliation attempt where Senator Manchin is left to hold the line on the various components of the bill or giving the Democrats the excuse they need to go after the filibuster.
Manchin didn’t get any help last week either. In the wake of the January 6th attack, Minority Leader McConnell, stood on the Senate floor and offered a scathing repudiation, saying the insurrectionists used “terrorism to try to stop a specific piece of democratic business they did not like.” Nevertheless, last week McConnell chose to follow in the footsteps of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who came out against the formation of a 9/11-style commission.
Moderates get the political calculation. Many Republicans believe that the party needs the support of former President Trump and his base to retake Congress, and eventually, The White House. They are not wrong in the fact that Trump still hold an enormous amount of sway with the party.
Still, there are two flaws in that strategy: Under President Trump, who remains unpopular with the majority of the country, both the House and Senate were lost, and the near-term cost of aligning with him could well be the loss of the filibuster which could lead to a slew of progressive legislation.
Moderates and independents also understand that the longer we relitigate January 6th, the less time we spend on the border, the deficit, culture wars, pandemic recovery and other issues that could play better for Republicans as the midterms approach.
The excommunication of Rep. Liz Chaney from House leadership made crystal clear where most of the party stands. Conventional party wisdom still believes that the GOP’s best chance to succeed in ’22 and possibly ‘24 lies with Donald Trump.
But here’s an analogy worth considering: The Republican party is the New England Patriots. It wasn’t that long ago that they were champions. They still have some good players on the team, and they are well coached. But the franchise quarterback is gone. Many key defenders are getting long in the tooth. Perhaps they are a playoff team that is able to beat a good team or two, but not a Super Bowl contender, and they won’t be again without rebuilding, and that means risking getting worse in order to get better.
The message will fall on a lot of deaf ears, hell, some of the GOP still care about ballots in Maricopa County, but like Joe Manchin, I firmly believe that there are 10 GOP Senators out there that can form a fulcrum of bipartisanship.
First there are the usual moderate Republicans: Senators Collins (ME), Murkowski (AK) and Romney (UT). They are frequently at the center of bipartisan legislating and have been known to buck the party on key votes – such as voting to impeach former President Trump.
Then there are the Republican Senators who are not running again: Senators Blunt (MO), Burr (NC), Portman (OH) and Toomey (PA). Their potential for bipartisanship rests in the fact that they no longer are trying to secure their political futures and have a mind toward their own legacies.
Let’s go ahead and rule out Sen. McConnell (KY) and Minority Whip Sen. Thune (SD). Senators Hawley (MO), Cruz (TX), Tuberville (AL), Marshall (KS), Kennedy (LA), Hyde-Smith (MS), Lummis (WY) and Scott (FL) all voted against democracy on January 6th, so they are unlikely to be interested. Senators Blackburn (TN), Johnson (WI), Graham (SC), Lankford (OK), Daines (MT), Braun (IN) and Lee (UT) are unlikely participants as well, based on their comments and track records.
Finding the remaining three GOP Senators is much more difficult, but there are some possibilities.
Senators Cassidy (LA) and Sasse (NE) have both stood up to President Trump when they believed it was needed. Cassidy voted to convict at the second impeachment, and Senator Sasse has already spoken out.
Senator Richard Shelby (AL) is also not running for re-election, and while he has publicly supported President Trump, he is reportedly on Carl Bernstein’s list of Senators who allegedly “expressed extreme discontent” with former President Trump. Trump is very popular in Alabama, but perhaps without another election on the horizon, Senator Shelby will see things differently.
Senators Tillis (NC) and Rubio (FL) are from purple states where independents matter. Rubio is up in 2022 and could face a challenge from former impeachment manager Rep. Val Demings among others. In 2016 Rubio spoke out against Trump and Trumpism on the campaign trail before falling in step with the President. Senator Tillis narrowly won re-election in 2020, defying a number of polls. Joining a deal making coalition would require more political courage than either has shown in the past, but they should think about it.
Senator Cornyn (TX) has had his differences with President Trump and has shown an adherence to principle in the past. Given the changing demographics in Texas, perhaps trying to be part of a solution will help with moderate voters down the line.
Senators Sullivan (AK), Ernst (IA), Cotton (AR) and Risch (ID): just won elections. Isn’t it possible that by 2026, the right side of history will be the one that supported bipartisanship and democracy rather than former President Trump?
Senator Tim Scott (SC) is also reported to be on Bernstein’s list. He says that 2022 will be his last election. Scott was chosen to deliver the Republican response to President Biden’s address. He is already working with Democrats on police reform.
Senator Grassley (IA) is on record as saying that there is “little opportunity” for Trump to lead the party. He is anothe
r who is supposedly on Bernstein’s list, though like Rubio, he has a race in 2022.
Of the 13 remaining Senators, six are up in 2022 and are unlikely to risk a primary challenge by acting in a bipartisan fashion that might agitate the MAGA base. They are Senators Boozman (AK), Crapo (ID), Hoeven (ND), Moran (KS), Paul (KY), and Young (IN). The remaining seven not up for reelection in 2022 are in solidly red states and likely fear backlash from the right flank of their constituency. Nevertheless, Senators Moore-Capito (WV), Cramer (ND), Fischer (NE), Hagerty (TN), Inhofe (OK), Rounds (SD) and Wicker (MS) would not face immediate political peril if they were to reach across the aisle.
While about half of the Republican delegation seems committed to grimly continuing down the path of obstruction, there is another way if ten can come together and as New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick would say, “Do their job.”
Republicans need to let Joe Manchin off the hook before he gets tired of fighting their good fight.