The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sputtering GOP opposition has given Democrats a big opening. Will they take it?

President Biden speaks about Small Business and the Paycheck Protection Program on Feb 22. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Right now, Democrats are tying themselves in knots trying to figure out how to increase the minimum wage, something President Biden ran on, their entire party believes in, and which is overwhelmingly popular with the public. There is some disagreement among them — some want $15 an hour, while others would prefer $11 — but even the former would accept a smaller increase.

Yet the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that a straight minimum wage increase can’t pass via the reconciliation process — the only way to pass a bill with a simple majority vote — the details of which are incomprehensible, or endlessly maddening, or both.

So Democrats have to find some kind of fiscal somersault to try to get the minimum wage increase into the covid relief bill. Maybe they could impose a tax on companies that don’t increase their wages, or do something else to satisfy the parliamentarian by cloaking a non-budgetary provision in budgetary clothing.

This is no way to make laws. And what’s even worse is that it’s happening at a moment when Republicans — who in the past have been nothing if not skilled at undermining, vilifying, and sabotaging Democratic presidents — have seldom looked more feckless.

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If I asked you to explain the Republican case against the covid relief bill, what would you say? Well, they think it’s too expensive, and they’d rather not give too much help to states and localities. But their arguments against it seem halfhearted, anemic, almost resigned. In fact, that’s how you could describe much of the Republican opposition to the Biden presidency as a whole.

This presents an extraordinary opportunity for Biden and congressional Democrats if they can see their way clear to take advantage of it.

This ought to be a moment when the GOP is back in its comfort zone. It’s not a party built for governing; Republicans no longer have much of a policy agenda, their leaders have become much more skilled at obstruction than at passing laws, and they have an enormous propaganda machine with a talent for creating fear and outrage. The party’s specialty is opposition.

So with Democrats in charge, Republicans should be in flow, controlling the field and dominating the conversation. Yet that’s not what’s happening at all. In fact, Republicans seem unable to find their opposition mojo.

One of the things they’ve done in the past is cast every new Democratic or liberal move as a harbinger of an impending apocalypse. Obamacare, they said in 2010, would destroy the American health care system. If gay people are allowed to marry, they said in 2004, the result would be the end of families and the breakdown of society. Both predictions proved ludicrously wrong, but at the time, they were highly effective means of motivating opposition.

Today you can still find such rhetoric, but you have to look for it. Social conservatives are getting exorcised about transgender rights — but much of the party seems uninterested in taking up this rallying cry. There’s plenty of apocalyptic rhetoric on Fox News, but it isn’t doing much to affect the rest of the debate (and Fox’s greatest influence comes when it shapes mainstream news coverage).

It’s partly because they just haven’t been able to take the hatred and fear their hardcore base feels for Biden and scale it up and out, which then affects their ability to whip up frenzied opposition to the things he’s trying to do. And the broader context matters, too: When we’re caught in a pandemic and an economic crisis, only so many people will get worked up about whether a transgender girl is allowed to play softball.

That gives Democrats the chance to move forward confidently with their agenda, an agenda that is enormously popular. Yet some in the party are still in the grip of the nonsensical belief that it’s more important to retain a Senate procedure whose purpose is to thwart progress than to pass laws that solve problems.

In every American state legislature and in most every legislature around the world, if there’s majority support for a bill, it passes. In almost all cases supermajorities are only required, if ever, on things like constitutional amendments.

And every argument the filibuster’s defenders make about it — that it produces deliberative debate, that it encourages bipartisanship, that it makes for cooperation and compromise — is simply wrong, as anyone who has been awake for the last couple of decades knows perfectly well.

The proof of all this is the fact that this covid relief bill will pass, because it’s the only thing Democrats can do without a supermajority. It’s a vital, popular bill that could have been done in cooperation with Republicans had they wanted, but instead they’ve decided to oppose it. Which is their right, but it also shows how a simple majority should be the requirement for more legislating — which can only happen if the filibuster is eliminated.

The first weeks of the Biden presidency show the path Democrats can take: Push forward with the popular and consequential parts of your agenda, don’t be distracted by bleating from Republicans, act as though the public is behind you (because it is), and you might find that the Republican opposition machine isn’t as potent as it used to be.

But none of that will be possible unless Democrats can deliver on their promises. If they let themselves be handcuffed by the filibuster, the Biden presidency will fail and Republicans will take control of Congress. In other words, Democrats will have done the job Republicans couldn’t do themselves.

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