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How Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans learned to stop worrying about a Biden victory and love the infrastructure bill

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) arrives at the Capitol on Tuesday, Aug.10, 2021,in Washington as the Senate prepared to pass the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) arrives at the Capitol on Tuesday, Aug.10, 2021,in Washington as the Senate prepared to pass the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

What happened Tuesday in the Senate might seem like nothing short of a political miracle: Nineteen Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, joined with Democrats to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, advancing President Biden’s top domestic priority.

But those Republicans said there was nothing mystical about it. The vote was the result of a carefully calibrated alignment of interests, one shepherded and ultimately supported by a group of senators isolated from the immediate pressures of the GOP voter base, which remains loyal to former president Donald Trump, who repeatedly urged the bill’s defeat.

Among those interests is a strategic one, McConnell and other Republicans said. By joining with Democrats in an area of mutual accord, they are seeking to demonstrate that the Senate can function in a polarized political environment. That, they believe, can deflate a Democratic push to undo the filibuster — the 60-vote supermajority rule than can allow a minority to block most legislation — while setting up a stark contrast as Democrats move alone on a $3.5 trillion economic package.

President Biden spoke after the Senate passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Aug. 10, saying the nation is on the "cusp of an infrastructure decade." (Video: The Washington Post)

“I’ve never felt that we ought to be perceived as being opposed to everything,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said in an interview Tuesday, before commenting on the slender nature of the Democratic congressional majorities, then rattling off bipartisan bills that passed during his time as party leader under two previous presidents.

“My point is, the Senate has never been dysfunctional,” he added. “It’s only called dysfunctional when liberals are in the majority and they can’t get what they want.”

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That’s a different tone than McConnell struck earlier this year when he said “100 percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration.” And it reflects the degree to which the push to scrap the filibuster poses a threat to Republicans’ ability to block Democratic priorities — a tool McConnell has used frequently and unapologetically in his nearly 15 years as GOP leader.

That pressure on Democrats is being stoked by liberal activists and voters who have vivid memories of how McConnell, as the top Senate Republican during Barack Obama’s presidency, stood athwart major Democratic agenda items, including the Affordable Care Act.

Now under Biden, advocates fear that major bills dealing with voting rights, police accountability and social spending are certain to founder so long as the filibuster remains in place. But several Democrats have resisted making any move toward eliminating or modifying the rule, which Democrats have used to block GOP priorities in recent years, as well, and Tuesday’s vote appears to have only encouraged their skepticism.

“I believe this very exercise demonstrates why it’s so important to maintain the 60-vote threshold in the United States Senate,” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), a leader of the bipartisan group that negotiated the bill, said in an interview on ABC’s “The View” last week.

To fuel that skepticism, McConnell on Tuesday praised Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), another prominent Democratic defender of the filibuster — echoing comments he has made privately to fellow Republican senators, encouraging support for the two Democrats who have publicly resisted the calls for rules changes.

“I never made that argument when we couldn’t get what we want because of the filibuster, because I believe in the institution, and I admire Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema for doing that, as well,” he said.

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McConnell had less to say about Trump, who issued statements over the course of weeks decrying the Republicans who supported the infrastructure deal as “RINOs” (Republicans in name only) who were handing a key victory to Biden, his successor and possible future opponent. The broadside continued just hours before the vote Tuesday, with a statement that derided McConnell as “the most overrated man in politics.”

“He is working so hard to give Biden a victory, now they’ll go for the big one, including the biggest tax increases in the history of our Country,” Trump said in a statement Tuesday, a reference to the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion economic bill that they are hoping to pass alongside the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

McConnell has mostly stuck to a policy of not commenting on the former president after decrying his role in fomenting the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Asked about Trump’s criticism Tuesday, he said, “I’m dealing with the future, not the past.”

He summarized his political analysis of Tuesday’s vote by noting high levels of support for infrastructure investment among GOP voters and the fact that both Obama and Trump had sought to tackle the issue. “My judgment was, it would not hurt the Republican Party to be part of an agreement to do something the American people desperately need,” he said.

His support came after Democrats agreed to set aside their attempts to undo the 2017 Republican tax overhaul, saving any tax hikes for their broader economic legislation. That, in his view, comported with the clarification he gave earlier this year after his “100 percent” comment prompted Democratic outrage: “I want to do business with the president, but he needs to be a moderate.”

Several other Republican senators said that the former president’s opposition simply was not compelling to lawmakers who have in some cases spent a career advocating for more federal investment in roads, bridges and broadband Internet access. Trump, for instance, proposed more than $1 trillion in infrastructure spending but failed to mobilize Congress to act even as Republicans held the House and Senate majorities during the first half of his term.

“I’ve always been for infrastructure,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a onetime harsh Trump critic turned loyal supporter. “Why would I change now?”

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Yet there is evidence that Trump’s opposition had some effect. Of the 19 Republicans who cast votes for the infrastructure bill Tuesday, only four are set to face voters next year. The rest all have anywhere from three to five years before they run again, and four — including Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), the bill’s lead Republican author — have already announced their retirement.

Another three Republicans who participated at various points in the bipartisan talks — Sens. Jerry Moran (Kan.), Mike Rounds (S.D.), and Todd C. Young (Ind.) — ended up opposing it. Moran and Young are up for reelection next year.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 GOP leader who is still considering whether to seek reelection next year, ultimately voted against the bill, citing its potential deficit impact — after spending weeks praising the senators who worked to strike the deal.

“I think with the Republican base, this bill probably is not popular,” he said after casting his vote Tuesday. “That being said, you have to be able, I think, to demonstrate on big issues that you can work across the line. Now, again, the result, the product isn’t something that every Republican can be for. But I applaud the effort because I hope that it makes things a little bit easier in the future.”

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Among the Republicans who did support the bill, several said that forestalling the demise of the filibuster — and thus paving the way for unchecked Democratic lawmaking — was at least a partial reason for their decisions.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) called it a “key factor,” along with the belief that supporting the proposal would ultimately reduce the total size of the Democratic economic package, which is currently set to exceed $4 trillion in spending on education, day care, climate change and health-care programs. He said McConnell had encouraged his fellow senators to look at the bill in a “broader strategic context, and drew a contrast between GOP senators who are running next year and those who aren’t.

“People that are running have to really explain things on a transactional basis,” said Tillis, who narrowly won reelection last year. “We’ve got to look at it on a strategic basis.”

For Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), an early Trump backer, tamping down Democrats’ filibuster push was a “bonus outcome” — but also one, he said, that was a central part of McConnell’s thinking.

“He knows it makes it much more difficult for people like Joe and Kyrsten and, frankly, others to change now,” he said. “The opposite’s the same. I mean, if we somehow blew this whole thing up, and it didn’t work out, I think it gets much easier for them to say, well, we were wrong.”

Democrats insist the filibuster debate is not going anywhere. Party leaders, for instance, are hoping to hold a vote on a new voting rights bill as soon as Wednesday in a bid to again demonstrate GOP intransigence on the issue, potentially setting up a rules debate later this year.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a leading advocate for filibuster changes, said the success of the infrastructure bill says more about what can’t be done in the Senate than what can be done.

“Republicans have long had an interest in infrastructure, but they have no interest in immigration reform. They have no interest in health-care reform. They have no interest in voting rights reform,” he said. “We are allowed to do only this set of things that Republicans are willing to do, and I just don’t think that’s how democracy is supposed to work.”

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In the short term, McConnell and Biden appear to be on a collision course over the perennial struggle to increase the federal debt ceiling, which is set to be reached sometime this fall. A breach could leave the United States unable to repay creditors, leading to unprecedented economic turmoil.

McConnell this month called on Democrats to manage the issue themselves by adding a debt-limit increase to the $3.5 trillion package they are planning to pass along party lines using special budget rules that can sidestep a filibuster. Democrats opted not to do so, arguing that Republican policies have added to the national debt and that it ought to be a shared responsibility to raise it.

In the interview Tuesday, McConnell would not say if he would negotiate with Democrats over the debt limit, which was last suspended under Trump in 2019 on a bipartisan vote, but said it would be “highly irresponsible” for Democrats not to raise it themselves: “They have the House, the Senate and the presidency. It’s their obligation to govern. And, you know, the essence of governing is to raise the debt ceiling to cover the debt.”

Asked if he had eyed other areas of potential bipartisan cooperation, McConnell chuckled and said, “Not yet.”

“The president certainly ran as a moderate, but with the exception of infrastructure, I haven’t seen any evidence of it,” he said. “So let’s just put it this way: Hope springs eternal. And if he ever decides he wants to operate in the middle, maybe we can do some business together.”