Some politicians thrive when they’re in the opposition; freed from the dull and difficult obligations of governing, they can spend their time shouting about the latest culture-war outrage and amassing new social media followers. But those who consider themselves more serious are eager to participate in policymaking even when in the minority.

It’s members of that latter group among Senate Republicans who are now, according to Politico, feeling manipulated and disrespected, used and abused, by the Biden White House. Staffers for a group of 10 Republican moderates (and I use that word loosely) say that when the president reaches out to them it only winds up making them feel bad:

They are now debating internally how to approach the Biden jobs bill. Their big fear is being used as “props” or “window dressing” at the next White House meeting.
“If you get an invitation to the White House, you go to the White House. But regardless, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said another G-10 staffer. “When you go to the White House meeting you risk being used in a feigned attempt at bipartisanship. If you don’t go then it’s, ‘Oh, Republicans won’t even meet with me.’ It all pivots on whether it’s a genuine offer from the White House or just part of their messaging strategy.”
Another staffer for one of the group of 10 senators was resigned to a replay of the Covid bill: “You would be hard pressed to find anyone on our side of the aisle that thinks this will end up any differently than last time.”

That may well turn out to be true. But what is it that these Republicans actually want?

Keep that question in the back of your mind while we recall how “last time” went. When Congress was considering the recent covid relief bill, Biden sought out Republicans to talk about their ideas. At a White House meeting, Republicans presented their plan, which Biden found absurdly anemic given the scale of the public health and economic emergency. (They wanted to spend less than a third of what the bill turned out to be.)

Nevertheless, Biden moved a bit in their direction by making the bill’s stimulus payments phase out more quickly for those with higher incomes, an issue they raised specifically. So they got something — but it wasn’t enough for them, and every last Republican voted against the bill.

Now we’re considering infrastructure, another large bill Republicans say they might support. If they don’t, Democrats will have to use reconciliation and pass it with only Democratic votes.

Here’s the power dynamic at play. Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress. The bill is popular with the public, as is the president himself. All Republicans control is the filibuster.

So they’re scared that this bill will turn out the same way the American Rescue Plan did: The moderate Republicans have some meetings with Biden; he listens to their ideas and perhaps adopts a bit of what they want; in the end they say, “Not good enough,” and all vote against the bill; the bill passes through reconciliation with only Democratic votes; it gives the public a bunch of things they like; and Biden gets all the credit.

If the 10 moderate Republicans don’t like that scenario because it makes them feel powerless and left out, why not put themselves back in the game?

How can they do that? By pledging to vote as a bloc — with Democrats — to give an infrastructure bill 60 votes and overcome their own party’s filibuster.

That’s the only thing they have to offer. The onus is on them to convince Biden and Democrats that if the right deal can be worked out, all of them, without exception, will defy Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and vote with Democrats on an infrastructure bill — even knowing Biden will get most of the credit for the results of the bill and for being bipartisan, too.

Forgive me for being skeptical.

Since all 10 of them voting for any bill that would help a Democratic president is so unlikely, and since Democrats have reconciliation as the trump card they can use if they have to, the Republicans are in an extremely weak position. That means that when it comes time to negotiate the details, they have to meet the Democrats not just halfway, but more than halfway. Maybe two-thirds of the way, or even five-sixths of the way (which would seem appropriate if they’re going to be 10 votes out of 60).

That’s the reality of negotiating from a position of weakness: You’re just not going to get everything you want. If you want to get anything at all, you’re going to have to give up a lot.

So to repeat: What exactly do these Republicans want?

We know there are things in the initial Democratic proposal they don’t like. They think it’s too big, for instance, and they complain that it includes “infrastructure” that is not actually made from concrete, an objection so ludicrous it barely deserves a moment’s consideration.

They also don’t like how it would be paid for — and this is a question where their bad faith really shines through. On one hand, they object to financing it with debt, having recently rediscovered their moral objection to large deficits (which they conveniently set aside while voting for the 2017 tax cut). On the other hand, they object to paying for it with a tax increase on corporations, as the White House has proposed.

In sum, we don’t know exactly what kind of bill they’d vote for, and they don’t like any of the options available to pay for it. Yet they’re really put out that Biden isn’t being more solicitous toward them.

So now the Republican moderates are faced with two choices: They can make real substantive and political sacrifices to have a genuine role in shaping the bill, or they can just whine about not getting everything they want. I know which outcome I’d put my money on.

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