McConnell: Biden must convince Pelosi and Schumer to delink the two infrastructure bills

Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP

This statement has multiple targets and I don’t think any of them are Pelosi and Schumer. Those two have to answer to the progressive base and will act accordingly. McConnell knows it, so there’s no sense in trying to pressure them.

But there is sense in trying to pressure Biden. And Joe Manchin. And the centrist Republicans who have been negotiating with the two of them.

Cocaine Mitch sees the Democratic strategy developing here — good cop/bad cop, with Biden in the role of the good cop who’s (now) willing to sign whatever reaches his desk and Pelosi as the bad cop who won’t take up a bipartisan roads-and-bridges bill unless it comes packaged with trillions in “human infrastructure” spending via reconciliation. McConnell badly wants to avoid an outcome in which Dems get both bills passed and Biden comes out smelling like a rose because, as the good cop, he didn’t issue any Pelosi-style ultimatums about holding the bipartisan bill hostage until both bills passed. That would be a bad midterm posture for Republicans, with the incumbent president getting to posture as a sensible, compromise-minded centrist while Pelosi ruthlessly advances the left’s agenda.

McConnell was given a gift a few days ago when Biden did issue a Pelosi-esque “both bill or bust” demand, which was stupid. Instead of good cop/bad cop, he and Pelosi were both behaving as bad cops. But Sleepy Joe worked hard over the weekend to undo the damage, once again declaring that he’ll sign whatever — knowing that Pelosi won’t allow the bipartisan bill to reach his desk unless the reconciliation bill arrives along with it. Biden’s back playing the good cop. This is McConnell’s way of trying to steer him into the bad cop role once again by insisting that if Pelosi roadblocks the bipartisan bill in the House then it’s ultimately Biden’s fault. It’ll be easier for Republicans next November if they can portray him as a ruthless hyperpartisan who doesn’t care about bipartisanship instead of Pelosi, about whom all of that is already assumed.

“The President has appropriately delinked a potential bipartisan infrastructure bill from the massive, unrelated tax-and-spend plans that Democrats want to pursue on a partisan basis. Now I am calling on President Biden to engage Leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi and make sure they follow his lead.

“Unless Leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi walk-back their threats that they will refuse to send the president a bipartisan infrastructure bill unless they also separately pass trillions of dollars for unrelated tax hikes, wasteful spending, and Green New Deal socialism, then President Biden’s walk-back of his veto threat would be a hollow gesture.

“Republicans have been negotiating in bipartisan good faith to meet the real infrastructure needs of our nation. The President cannot let congressional Democrats hold a bipartisan bill hostage over a separate and partisan process.”

Cedric Richmond, a top Biden advisor, was asked yesterday whether the president really would sign a bipartisan infrastructure bill if that’s the only thing that passes Congress. He … did not give a straight answer:

The truthful answer would have been “There’s no chance that only one bill passes the House. Either both bills will or none will.” But Richmond didn’t want to say that or else it would have put Biden back in the bad-cop role. The White House will aim for studious neutrality going forward on what POTUS will sign. It’ll be up to Pelosi to push the “both bills or bust” message.

Biden is just one target of McConnell’s statement. Another is Manchin, whom Mitch knows is likely to pass a blowout reconciliation bill on a party-line vote after the bipartisan bill passes but who might be successfully pressured by Republicans into shrinking that bill’s price tag. Manchin was asked yesterday whether he thinks the Squad and other progressives in the House will vote for the bipartisan bill if they get a “skinny” reconciliation bill along with it. He implied that there *will* be a reconciliation bill but that, yeah, it’ll be thinner than lefties want:

If Manchin supports the reconciliation bill, McConnell wants him to either pare it down or pay a political price in West Virginia. Today’s statement is a step towards that.

The final audience for McConnell are the members of his own caucus who have been working with Biden and Manchin on the bipartisan bill. It’s unclear to me whether Mitch wants a compromise to happen or not. If it happens, the GOP can use that as evidence that they’re not blindly obstructionist and take some credit for the infrastructure improvements that result. If it fails, Democrats will probably pass a single infrastructure mega-bill via reconciliation and the GOP can attack it as a mind-bogglingly irresponsible orgy of spending. The question is, are centrist R’s actually listening to McConnell on this or are they going their own way? Mitt Romney seemed happy to credit Biden with being a “good cop” yesterday despite Mitch’s efforts to the contrary today:

Romney might be in his own category of centrist at this point, a de facto conservative independent. There are other members of the negotiating team, like Rob Portman, who are considered team players to a greater degree than Romney is. Schumer can’t get to 60 on the bipartisan bill without them. I think it’s the Portmans in the group whom McConnell is talking to with today’s statement, not the Romneys, Collinses, and Murkowskis. Maybe he’s nudging Portman et al. to quit the negotiations unless Schumer and Pelosi explicitly say that they’ll take up the bipartisan bill first. That would put pressure on Manchin to make the same demand. And if he does so then Democrats will suddenly be in the midst of a messy intraparty fight over next steps, a win for Republicans.

A major mystery in all this is whether Pelosi would really roadblock a bipartisan bill if that’s the first thing to come over from the Senate. She might have no choice: With her majority in the House so slender, progressives could force her hand by opposing the bill until a reconciliation bill passes. Pelosi would be stuck unless she can find Republican votes to offset those no’s, which is unlikely. But Biden might turn around and pressure her and the left to pass the bill anyway and secure a bipartisan win for him and the party, with Manchin vowing behind the scenes that he’ll move forward with the “human infrastructure” bill in order to placate them. Would private assurances from a centrist Dem who’s disappointed the left so much already be enough to get House Dems to pass a standalone bipartisan bill? We’ll find out!