For years, Democrats have watched Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell deploy ultra-partisan legislative tactics to outmaneuver them on everything from fiscal cliff negotiations to filling a Supreme Court seat.
But this week, Senate Republicans may have gotten a taste of their own medicine—and it didn’t go down smoothly.
On Wednesday, McConnell and 13 Republicans joined with all Democrats to pass a sweeping bill investing in U.S. high-tech manufacturing, a major bipartisan win.
Progressives Decide It’s Better to Win With Manchin Than Lose Without Him
Barely an hour later, after more than a year of halting negotiations, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) announced he had reached an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on a package of climate investments, tax hikes for the rich, and prescription drug reforms.
McConnell said in June that Republicans would hold the manufacturing bill hostage if Democrats moved forward with their broader bill, which would pass through a party-line vote process called reconciliation. After that, Manchin threw cold water on the idea of passing a sweeping bill, and Republicans expected Democrats to pursue a pared-down package only containing drug pricing reforms.
Clearly, Manchin never left the table. And Republicans, along with the rest of the world, found out when the senator released a statement announcing his support for a party-line bill—minutes after the GOP relinquished its leverage.
“I think that could be something you call ‘getting rolled,’” Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “There had to be a little bit of trust. I guess, someone, it looks like they either misunderstood or it didn’t work out the way it should have.”
“It’s a sour taste,” Braun continued, “for some of us.”
The Senate GOP’s Oxford-educated dispenser of folksy wisdom, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), was characteristically more blunt in an interview with Politico. “Looks to me like we got rinky-doo’d,” he said. “That’s a Louisiana word for ‘screwed.’”
To Democrats, the GOP meltdown is befuddling. Schumer and his caucus never made an agreement to give up on their plans for a party-line package in order to pass the high-tech manufacturing bill.
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Democratic lawmakers questioned how they could have rolled Republicans on a deal they never actually cut.
“I literally have no idea what they’re talking about,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). “Nobody in the Republican conference should be surprised that we want to pass legislation cutting drug prices and addressing climate change.”
But the timeline of events has a distinctly Machiavellian twist. To some Democrats, it smacked of something their longtime GOP tormentor in the Senate might have gladly pulled off.
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), who has alternately worked with and fought McConnell for years, said he was “certainly pessimistic” about ever seeing the day that Democrats would outflank McConnell.
“I was glad to see it, and I’m glad to see they are acting very pragmatically and intentionally,” Yarmuth said. “You’d think after watching him for so many years they might pick up something.”
McConnell’s office declined to comment for this story. But asked by a reporter on Wednesday if he was duped, McConnell mostly ignored that question and instead attacked the deal that Manchin and Schumer had reached.
Joe Manchin Made His Big Move Just Before His Senate Superpowers Expire
“What’s happening here is that Manchin and Schumer have reached an agreement which is absolutely horrendous and totally unnecessary given the inflation the Democrats have already created,” he said. “So that’s the issue we’re heading toward, and it’s an unmitigated disaster for the country and we’re going to fight it as hard as we can.”
Intentional or not, the fallout of Wednesday’s events will reverberate in a number of key ways for both parties.
In the span of 24 hours, Democrats went from mourning their agenda to touting a major bipartisan win on the economy and speeding toward the legislative landmark on climate and tax policy that has eluded them for over a year.
Republicans, seemingly caught flat footed, decided to retaliate by opposing bills that many of them had previously supported. In June, for instance, nearly all Republicans voted to advance long-awaited legislation to expand health care benefits for veterans exposed to toxic substances on the job.
After Manchin released his statement on Wednesday announcing a deal, the Senate held a vote on final passage of that bill—and 41 GOP senators revolted, blocking the legislation at its final hurdle.
Democrats, along with veterans and their advocates, were left flabbergasted that Republicans—many of whom had already supported the bill—would vote down health care for servicemembers seemingly as a response to Democrats’ maneuvering.
“Republicans now are basically holding the veterans hostage because they’re mad,” Manchin said on Thursday.
Mitch McConnell Is Pulling His Favorite Move After Mass Shootings
Other bills may now be at risk: Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told HuffPost on Thursday that the agreement on the climate and tax legislation might tank GOP support for a bill codifying same-sex marriage that was primed for a bipartisan vote in the Senate.
For McConnell, this week marks the second time in the last year that a characteristic hardball threat has seemingly backfired.
Last year, when Congress needed to raise the federal government’s borrowing authority—and avoid a catastrophic default—McConnell told Democrats they’d need to do it on their own, with 50 votes, rather than the customary 60.
When Democrats called his bluff, McConnell agreed to a two-month extension of the debt limit and promised no Republican help on the next round. But in December, he provided enough GOP votes to agree to a one-time exception to the filibuster, allowing Democrats to raise the debt limit on their own.
Both Schumer and Manchin have downplayed the conspicuous timing of this week’s events. When asked about it on Thursday, Schumer told reporters he and Manchin simply “wanted to move as quickly as possible” and that they went public only after the legislation was scored by a congressional committee.
Asked during a press conference if he had pulled a “fast one” on Republicans, Manchin said, “I sure hope they don’t feel that way.”
Manchin is well-known for his good relationships with Republican colleagues, but there is little love lost between him and McConnell, according to a Democratic aide.
Mitch McConnell Never Puts America First
Manchin began feuding with the GOP leader not long after he arrived in the Senate, when the two launched dueling lobbying campaigns in 2012 to get their home-state universities into the Big 12 conference for football. (Manchin won.)
When McConnell became majority leader, Manchin fumed publicly and privately at the scorched-earth, ultra-partisan way he ran the Senate. Most recently, Manchin sharply criticized McConnell for blocking an independent commission to investigate Jan. 6.
“When he struck the reconciliation deal, Manchin probably hadn’t thought about knifing McConnell. It’s not who he is,” the Democratic aide said. “But in a private moment, he may sit back and smile and think he got one for WVU.”
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