In the early morning hours on Friday, Senate Democrats passed a measure laying the groundwork to move President Biden’s big economic rescue package via the reconciliation process, by a simple majority. Republicans are already thundering with outrage.

The move does indeed pose a serious challenge to Republicans. But it’s one that runs deeper than merely moving toward passing this one package without them. It also suggests a reset in dealing with GOP bad-faith tactics across the board — and even the beginnings of a response to the Donald Trump era and the ideology loosely described as “Trumpism.”

First, the new move suggests a growing recognition that the conventional understanding of how “bipartisanship” works has things exactly backward — and that Republicans have manipulated the public debate on this topic for far too long.

For instance, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is already denouncing this move. The minority leader railed that Democrats have “set the table to ram through their $1.9 trillion rough draft,” adding: “notwithstanding all the talk about bipartisan unity, Democrats are plowing ahead.”

Getting past McConnell’s scam

McConnell’s underlying claim is that Democrats should allow their plan to be subject to a supermajority requirement via the filibuster, to facilitate bipartisanship. The idea is this: If a partisan majority can’t pass things by itself, it must reach out for bipartisan support; if it can, it won’t. And doing the latter would betray Biden’s promises to seek “unity.”

This is a scam. The reality is the other way around: In McConnell’s hands, the filibuster has actually made bipartisanship less likely.

By preventing a partisan majority from passing things, McConnell has created the conditions for withholding the GOP support necessary to enact them, for the instrumental purpose of casting Democratic presidents (such as Barack Obama) as failed conciliators.

This has worked as follows: GOP senators have withheld support regardless of the concessions made to win them over, because they calculate the president’s party will take the political hit for failing to make bipartisan deals.

The paradox here is that using reconciliation — moving to pass something by a simple majority — actually could bolster the conditions for good-faith bipartisanship. GOP senators who might be gettable will no longer have a built-in incentive to oppose a particular bill. It’s likely passing anyway, so the lure of helping the party by opposing it — because the Democratic president will get blamed for failure — isn’t nearly as strong.

Under those conditions, Biden actually would have an opening to negotiate with Republicans in the quest for bipartisan support. In the conditions McConnell wants, the incentives for moderate GOP senators point in the other direction.

Whether Biden actually will end up negotiating down to win a few Republicans is an open question. But the point is, in McConnell’s cynical scenario, this would be nothing but a fool’s errand, because it would be far less likely to work.

McConnell’s other basic idea — that a supermajority requirement protects the minority — is also nonsense. Adam Gurri makes a key distinction between protecting the rights of the minority party and protecting those of minorities of voters. The latter are protected by many other veto points in the system. Protecting the minority party’s rights by subjecting all Senate business to a supermajority requirement is only about facilitating its ability to obstruct.

Which gets at another way this move challenges the Trump-era GOP.

Challenging Trumpism

Senior Democrats have begun to articulate the idea that the true way to revitalize faith in government — and in democracy — is by successfully delivering on big-ticket items. Achieving bipartisan cooperation for its own sake will do far less to address deep civic division and disillusionment than robust and effective action on behalf of the common good will.

The Biden plan now will be written by Congress. But the new move lays the groundwork for passage of a package that could spend as much as $1.9 trillion. Though the Senate killed the $15 minimum wage for now, the bill could send out $1,400 stimulus checks to individuals, extend supplemental unemployment assistance for months, boost the child tax credit and allot $160 billion to mitigating the pandemic and speeding vaccine distribution.

In an interesting column, David Brooks suggests that such large-scale spending could begin to accomplish “social repair.” We should spend far more than what’s merely needed to fill the “output gap.” We should spend to address the deep inequalities and injustices revealed by the pandemic and longer-term structural ills such as flat wages and regional stagnation. Undershooting here, Brooks notes, carries far greater moral and civic risks than overshooting.

I’d go further: Such an approach also contains the seeds of a broader answer to Trumpist populism. Success in using robust government action to charge up the recovery and get the coronavirus under control — including sinking medical resources into rural America — could clear political space for Biden to restore humanity to our immigration system and sanity to our international climate efforts.

Spending effectively toward the common good might begin to defang destructive zero-sum nationalist appeals. That could pave the way for a “new synthesis” that combines bolder progressive economics with a refusal to backpedal on issues that Democrats have long seen as politically perilous in the face of right-wing populist demagoguery. Biden’s ambitious actions so far on immigration and climate suggest just this understanding of the moment.

All this might sound overly optimistic. And there are countless ways Democrats can screw this all up. But the early returns suggest they are constructively breaking with old ways of thinking. And that could portend a serious long-term challenge to the Trumpified GOP.

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