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Opinion Will McCain defend the bipartisan process?

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Sept. 5 in Washington. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)

The first significant fight following Doug Jones’s stunning victory is well underway in the U.S. Senate. Unsurprisingly, Democrats are demanding that Republicans abide by the same process they afforded Scott Brown when he was elected to the Senate in a special election in Massachusetts in 2010, namely to hold the final vote on the tax bill (last time it was Obamacare) after the Jones is sworn in.

Democrats are already tripping down memory lane, circulating video of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) thanking Democrats for allowing Brown to be seated. “No gamesmanship will be played by the other side,” McConnell said. He cited a brave Democrat, Jim Webb of Virginia, for refusing to proceed before seating Brown. (“Well, at the risk of being redundant, what I think is being clear is that there will be no further action in the Senate thanks to Senator Webb until Scott Brown is sworn in.”)

At a news conference today, Minority Leader Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) reiterated his call for fairness:

Well, today we Senate Democrats are calling on Mitch McConnell to hit pause on this tax bill and not hold a final vote until Doug Jones is sworn into the Senate. Doug Jones will be the duly elected senator from Alabama. The governor did not appoint him, he won an election. It would be wrong for Senate Republicans to jam through this tax bill without giving the newly elected senator from Alabama the opportunity to cast his vote. Now that’s exactly what Republicans argued when Scott Brown was elected in 2010. Referring to health care, listening to what Leader McConnell said, what we ought to do, McConnell’s quote: “what we ought to do, as we said repeatedly throughout the month of December as you know, we were here every day, we ought to start and stop over, and go step by step to concentrate on fixing the problem.” He said of the election, the one of Scott Brown, “I think the majority has gotten the message. No more gamesmanship. No more lack of transparency.” What did Leader [Harry M.] Reid do when Scott Brown was elected? He said, “we’re going to wait until the new senator arrives before we do anything more,” on the health-care bill which was then handled. What is good for the goose is good for the gander, and what is good for the gander is good for the goose. McConnell ought to do what he said ought to be done in 2010 and what we did in 2010 — delay until Doug Jones gets here and can cast a vote. Plain and simple.

So far it does not appear McConnell has any intention of doing so. (Recall he refused to give Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a vote for more than nine months, effectively holding the seat for now-Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.)

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That won’t be because lack of effort on Democrats’ part. On Tuesday night, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said at a news conference, “I am hoping that Republican leaders accept the will of the people of Alabama and halt their attempt to jam through massive tax cuts for the rich until Senator-elect Jones is seated.”

An energetic Democratic aide dug these remarks by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) out from the congressional record following Brown’s win: “I congratulate Scott Brown. I congratulate our new colleague not only for standing up for what is right but also for articulating the frustration of the American people about this process we have been through,” McCain said then. “So here we are, and now the rumors are that they will jam this proposal through the House of Representatives and then bypass what has always been the normal legislative process. They should not do that. The American people have spoken. The people of Massachusetts have spoken for the rest of America.” He urged, “Stop this process, sit down in open and transparent negotiations, and let’s begin from the beginning.”

The question may boil down to this: What will McCain do when the shoe is on the other foot? In knocking down an irregular, partisan process on health care, he told his colleagues:

Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order. We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. That’s an approach that’s been employed by both sides, mandating legislation from the top down, without any support from the other side, with all the parliamentary maneuvers that requires. …
This place is important. The work we do is important. Our strange rules and seemingly eccentric practices that slow our proceedings and insist on our cooperation are important. Our founders envisioned the Senate as the more deliberative, careful body that operates at a greater distance than the other body from the public passions of the hour.
We are an important check on the powers of the executive. Our consent is necessary for the president to appoint jurists and powerful government officials and in many respects to conduct foreign policy. Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the president’s subordinates. We are his equal!

This development tests once again McCain’s sincerity. McCain’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute is not optimistic that the Republicans will treat Democrats as they were treated in 2010. “There is indeed a sharp contrast on Scott Brown and Doug Jones. There is always a delay between an election and the certification required for a new senator to be seated. Reid could have used his 60 votes in the interregnum but did not. (Of course, it is also possible one of the 60, maybe [Sen. Joseph I.] Lieberman, would have objected.) But Reid respected the election results. McConnell simply does not care.” He added, “I had hoped that McCain meant it when he gave his eloquent plea for the regular order. But the tax bill he voted for in the Senate was as great a distortion of the regular order as I have seen.” He observes that Republicans have staked everything on tax cuts. “To McConnell and most of his colleagues, this tax cut is the key to everything. It is a big accomplishment, the first one. It is a big wet kiss to the major donors who will cut off the funds if they don’t get their billions.” That means process mostly likely will be reduced to rubble.

Jared Bernstein, former chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, concurs. He tells me, “The whole process around this tax plan has been fundamentally undemocratic, from the 2 a.m. votes on measures they themselves don’t understand, to the absence of public hearings. Clearly, Republicans are serving their donor base, not the voters.” He adds: “Delaying Senator-elect Jones’s seating is just their latest slap at democracy.”

But it need not be that way. The GOP can lose two votes in the Senate and still pass its bill. Only Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is a no vote, as of yet. The only reason for delaying the vote is fear that there will be another Republican who rejects this dog’s breakfast of a bill. Maybe Republicans should improve the bill instead of cramming the votes down the throats of their own members. They should think long and hard about their process: It is far from inconceivable that the Democrats could win the majority back in 2018. Do Republicans really want to live in the minority under the procedures — or lack thereof — they are setting now? I suspect pure fear of failing on the tax bill will override concerns about Senate comity, but I hope they show themselves to be better than that.

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