One of the most important and misunderstood facts about the politics of legislation is that the public is largely indifferent to the process of governing. But like every rule, there are exceptions. Every once in a while, a fight over legislation or rule-making can produce enough real-world effects that the public can’t help but notice. They can even properly apportion credit and blame.

Democrats are about to have an opportunity to produce just such an outcome, on what could be the one major piece of legislation they pass this year. They will likely soon pass a massive covid relief bill — and it’s possible that not a single Republican will support it.

Should that occur, Democrats can and should make Republicans pay a heavy price.

It won’t happen on its own. But that bill is already enormously popular, and if Democrats work at it, it could become a symbol of everything about this era in our politics. Republicans are going to allow them to frame it as a story of Democratic problem-solving and Republican betrayal.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Feb. 23 said that the Democratic coronavirus relief proposal would spend too much money and was not targeted. (The Washington Post)

The bill will probably get a vote in the House this week and will then be taken up by the Senate next week. That won’t be the end of the story; there are some kinks to work out, including whether an increase in the minimum wage will wind up in the final version.

But this bill is going to pass — by all indications, without a single Republican vote in the House and perhaps no GOP votes in the Senate either. Here’s what CNN’s John Harwood reports:

The obvious answer to the member’s question is that a Republican member might vote for the bill because it provides help that Americans need. That would be true whether Democrats “reached out” to Republicans or not.

But let’s step back and remind ourselves of the history of covid relief bills. At every step, Republican decision-making was determined by their immediate political incentives, and that hasn’t changed.

The first iteration, the Cares Act, passed almost unanimously in March 2020. Why was that? Not only was the need obvious and urgent as the pandemic began seizing the country, but it was in Republicans’ political interest to do something, since they were the ruling party. Everyone understood that if the government did not move aggressively to come to the country’s rescue, it would be impossible for Donald Trump to win reelection.

There then ensued a period of months in which House Democrats tried to advance more aid bills, but then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to allow them to be considered by the Senate. Why he did so was an abiding mystery; the best theory was that McConnell decided that Trump would lose no matter what, so he didn’t want to do anything to help the country recover under a Joe Biden presidency.

But then came the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia, which were overtaken by the question of whether Congress would give people more aid, especially direct payments. In an attempt to save Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, Republicans allowed the second covid relief bill to pass in December, this time not unanimously but overwhelmingly (it lost 50 Republican votes in the House and six in the Senate).

Which brings us to today. While Democrats have long supported more relief for substantive reasons, Republicans’ political calculation has changed. They think they have nothing to gain from a bill that would help accelerate the country’s recovery from the pandemic. Biden and Democrats are in charge, so that’s where credit will flow.

That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate criticisms Republicans can make of this particular relief package. But the way this is likely to end up — with almost total GOP opposition — offers an important demonstration of the dynamics of partisanship and polarization.

Start with the fact that the bill is hugely popular; depending on how you ask the question, as many as 8 in 10 Americans think it’s a good idea.

So even though plenty of Republican voters support covid relief, and even if this bill offers benefits to Republican lawmakers’ constituents, on balance the party sees it in its interests to oppose the bill. Once that decision is made, any individual member knows that the cost for opposing his or her party would be heavy, including likely condemnation on Fox News.

So what might have been a close call on the merits as each member considered his or her vote becomes absolute and total opposition in the final vote. Even a bill with plenty to offer every state and district gets treated as though it were highly ideological; from the vote tallies you’d think we were talking about abortion or taxing the rich, not distributing vaccines and giving money to schools.

Presuming the relief bill passes, Democrats will of course celebrate it as a great victory. And the consensus is now that over the next year, the pandemic will fade (depending on whether we see new strains of the virus that are resistant to vaccines) and the economy will experience a period of strong growth as we get back to normal life.

Democrats, creatures of nuance that they are, will be inclined to say “That relief bill helped, though of course it was only one factor in a complex picture…” But if they were more politically shrewd, they’d repeat a thousand times, “We saved the country and the economy. And every last Republican tried to stop us.”

Voters might not care much about legislative wrangling, but that simple story — Democrats are getting things done while Republicans are trying to sabotage everything — is something anyone can understand. It will even have the benefit of being mostly true.

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