The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The McConnell mentality keeps the Senate and Congress dysfunctional

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Sept. 19 "we would have to act before Sept. 30" to pass a health-care bill under reconciliation rules. (Video: The Washington Post)

Imagine if all serious differences forging a bipartisan bill could be overcome, allowing for some genuine security for the most vulnerable in our society and moving closer to consensus on health care. It might encourage similar moves on other issues. It might restore some trust in government.

Well, we had it and because it was bipartisan, non-extreme and did not afford the Republican Senate a win for the sake of winning and the chance to get back in the good graces of the manifestly unfit and unstable president, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stepped in to nix it.

That is what, according to multiple sources, happened yesterday as Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) cleared the decks on substantive issues. But then Alexander got yanked back. He hinted at the pressure he was under when he told the press he was “not a magician.” Too embarrassed to acknowledge he’d been stomped on by McConnell, he put out a patently disingenuous statement. “Senator Murray and I had hoped to agree early this week on a limited, bipartisan plan to stabilize 2018 premiums in the individual health insurance market that we could take to Senate leaders by the end of the month,” he said. “During the last month, we have worked hard and in good faith, but have not found the necessary consensus among Republicans and Democrats to put a bill in the Senate leaders’ hands that could be enacted.” In fact the only problem was his majority leadership, desperately straining to please the president with a partisan, fly-by-night repeal of Obamacare.

Murray hit back with her own statement. “I was very glad that Chairman Alexander kicked off this bipartisan process to tackle health care uncertainty and the higher premiums facing families if Congress doesn’t act. We’ve held hearings, we’ve had discussions that included over half the Senate, and we’ve negotiated in good faith for weeks to try achieve, as Chairman Alexander puts it so well, ‘a result’ for our constituents.” She conceded that she made “some tough concessions to move in Chairman Alexander’s direction when it comes to giving states more flexibility.” However, she let on, “Republican leaders have decided to freeze this bipartisan approach and are trying to jam through a partisan Trumpcare bill, but I am confident that we can reach a deal if we keep working together—and I am committed to getting that done.” One couldn’t help but feel a bit embarrassed for Alexander, a seasoned legislator who had been rapped on the knuckles and retreated like an obedient school boy.

Minority Leader Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) confirmed what everyone minimally plugged into the day’s events on the Hill knew: “This is not about substance. We gave them many of the things they asked for, including copper plans and wide waiver authority. The Republican leadership is so eager to pass Graham-Cassidy that they’re scuttling a balanced, bipartisan negotiation.”

It would have been one thing had the GOP bill at issue been solid legislation designed to help Americans get affordable health-care coverage. It’s not; it’s a more indiscriminate assault on Medicaid and support for the health-care exchanges than prior bills. As Axios reported, it does not even contain sweeteners that would have made it palatable to some members. Without a gradual wind-down of Medicaid expansion, “Graham-Cassidy comes with a steep cliff after which all funding for both the subsidies and Medicaid expansion would disappear.” It has no pool of money for opioid abuse treatment. Obamacare taxes remain in place but not iron-clad protection for those with pre-existing conditions. When and if voters find out what’s in it, they may be outraged to find out that tens of millions of Americans will go without coverage.

The way in which this is being forced forward — by sabotaging an actually bipartisan, regular-order bill — is a particularly personal slap in the face of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who made an impassioned plea last time around for regular order and bipartisanship. McCain has implored his colleagues to work together in open, not by stealth and connivance. These kind of machinations (no full scoring, a rush to judgment, crush bipartisan alternatives, etc.) are not what McCain has spent his life defending; the trickery surrounding Cassidy-Graham provides one more sign that under McConnell’s tutelage the Senate has become a more pompous version of the House (in which party discipline is sacred, not the tradition of open debate). McCain will need to brush aside any last minute guilt-tripping appeals from his friend Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) if he is once more to block the Senate’s road to ruin and secure his legacy.

As a source close to Murray told me, squashing the Alexander-Murray effort made clear bipartisanship will be punished, not rewarded. Instead, a pattern will be established: Crush bipartisan compromises and force-feed partisan bills even if they accomplish few if any of the objectives Republicans or Trump promised. It will not be fully scored when it must come to the floor next week to get under the wire of the current fiscal year, whereby they can use reconciliation to pass with zero Democratic support.

One comes away convinced that so long as the mentality of “win at any cost for the sake of winning” prevails — with no concern for the substance of immensely consequential legislation and active hostility to bipartisan solutions — Congress will remain a dysfunctional mess. McConnell will not change, and so only a change in the Senate and/or House majority will bring about a new approach to governance. Tuesday was a vivid example of why good governance and Republican majorities no longer mix.