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Opinion McConnell’s bizarre threats show the danger of a GOP-controlled Congress

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in Washington on June 22. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has long benefited from a kind of built-in media presumption of his tactical brilliance. His procedural feints are regularly depicted at first as masterstrokes, even though they sometimes flop, showing him to be operating from a weaker position than his perpetual aura of confidence implied.

Yet now the Kentucky Republican’s latest move is raising eyebrows among some of the savviest reporters in Washington. McConnell is threatening to tank negotiations over a major bill boosting U.S. manufacturing and research — to get Democrats to back off pursuing a Democrats-only measure addressing climate change, prescription drug prices and health-care costs.

It’s a useful warning of what a GOP-controlled Congress would look like: more governing-by-arsonist-threat and more blockading of policies that might help people, justified with arguments that are saturated in bad faith and driven by no discernible vision of what’s in the public interest.

Democrats are set to respond with a new proposal to tax very high earners to extend the solvency of Medicare, a Democratic aide tells me. This will be added to a package being negotiated with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), to pass with only Democrats via “reconciliation.”

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That reconciliation package — a scaled-down version of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda — also includes green-energy incentives, extended Affordable Care Act subsidies and a provision for Medicare to negotiate down prescription drug prices. That roughly $1 trillion package would be funded by a rollback of some 2017 GOP tax cuts for the rich and corporations.

If the Democratic strategy works, adding the Medicare solvency provision to these proposals will put more political pressure on McConnell’s threat. The provision would impose a tax on owners of “pass through” companies who earn more than $400,000 per year, to extend Medicare’s solvency through 2031.

McConnell’s approach here is a bit opaque. In response to the news that Manchin is now seriously negotiating with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) about this package, McConnell’s office renewed his threat, warning that if Democrats continue pursuing those talks, a separate bipartisan package to invest in U.S. competitiveness against China is toast.

It’s hard to discern where McConnell’s leverage is supposed to come from. As Punchbowl News reports, Democrats would obviously gain politically from unilaterally lowering prescription drug prices and extending Affordable Care Act subsidies to stave off the catastrophe of their lapsing.

In pure political terms, Democrats would surely prefer this to killing the reconciliation bill, even if it kills the China package. Democrats could then try to blame Republicans for sinking an effort to make us more competitive against China — weakening the dopey GOP talking point that Democrats are soft on China — all to block Democrats from lowering prescription drug prices and making health care more affordable.

The China bill already passed the Senate — it includes nearly a quarter-trillion dollars in investments in U.S. semiconductor manufacturing, research and other technologies — but now it must be merged with the House version. This is what McConnell is threatening to tank.

The best explanation for McConnell’s position here comes from GOP strategist Liam Donovan. He notes that McConnell likely cares mainly about only one chunk of that overall package, the $52 billion in investments to shore up the computer chip industry, which is central to U.S. competitiveness with China.

In this telling, McConnell is calculating that most of his conference doesn’t particularly care about the other investments, and that the $52 billion for the chip industry will get passed one way or another anyway. So he’s really just threatening the rest of the bill.

But nonetheless, McConnell’s move is a reminder of what a GOP-controlled Congress would have in store. Presumably every single Republican will oppose the Democrats’ reconciliation bill. So a GOP Congress would slam the brakes on policies such as continuing the expansion toward universal health care and investing in our transition to a green-energy future.

Now add to that all-but-certain GOP opposition to closing a tax loophole — one exploited by very wealthy Americans — to shore up Medicare. And top that off with McConnell’s tactics, which are ludicrous from a public interest perspective.

After all, McConnell himself voted for the overall China bill, as did 18 other Republicans. True, McConnell and Republicans might reasonably oppose whatever version of that bill emerges from negotiations with the House on substantive grounds.

But there’s no meaningfully coherent argument for making GOP support for that eventual product hinge on whether Democrats act unilaterally to protect Medicare, keep prescription drug prices down and prevent health-care premiums from chaotically spiking for millions.

And yet, if Republicans gain control of Congress, we’ll be getting a lot more of exactly this approach to governance.