The New Year’s Eve agreement between Biden and McConnell provided a glimpse at the ways that personality quirks and one-to-one relationships can still change the course of Washington politics. On the Hill’s most dramatic night in 16 months, these things seemed to matter far more than raw power.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) didn’t have enough political muscle to strike a bargain with the president. The president was so intent on showing his muscle that he alienated the Republicans he was supposed to bargain with. Those two, the most powerful Democrat and the most powerful Republican in Washington, tried to strike a historic, sweeping deal, and failed.
Instead, they got what Biden and McConnell could wrangle on the phone at the last minute: a small deal that solved few of the big problems outside the immediate crisis.
Starting Sunday, Biden and McConnell talked repeatedly, hammering out agreements on a complicated array of topics: income tax rates, inheritance taxes, huge budget cuts set to take effect in January. While they talked, the rest of Congress waited. And waited. And complained.
“There are two people in a room deciding incredibly consequential issues for this country, while 99 other United States senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives — elected by their constituencies to come to Washington — are on the sidelines,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said on the Senate floor in the afternoon.
Thune was wrong about one thing: In a day of phone conversations, Biden and McConnell were never actually in the same room. But Thune was right that legislators had, essentially, been cut out of the legislative process. By the time a deal was announced, about 8:45 p.m. Monday, there was little time for anything but a vote.“At least we would have had an opportunity to debate this, instead of waiting now until the eleventh hour,” Thune said. The Senate-passed measure now moves to the House.
By now, however, nobody on Capitol Hill should have been surprised at how this would end.
Monday marked the third time in two years that a congressional cliffhanger had ended with a bargain struck by McConnell and Biden. The first time came in late 2010, during a year-end showdown over the expiring Bush-era tax cuts. The second was in August 2011, during the fight over the debt ceiling. In both cases, Washington’s new power players — Obama and the tea-party-infused House GOP — couldn’t reach an agreement. They were saved by a bargain struck in Washington’s oldest tradition, not much changed from the days of Henry Clay except the size of the dollar figures and the presence of a phone.