What’s the question? Just about anything important a Democratic president is asking.
The answer was no.
Republicans said no.
Resistance to change is, to be sure, expected from the nation’s conservative political party. An intellectual icon of the modern GOP, William F. Buckley, once described a conservative’s role as to “stand athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!'”
But in the era of partisan polarization, that impulse has hardened into resistance to governance itself. On issues that rile them most — the changing face of America, domestic spending programs, tax increases — congressional Republicans have flashed red lights at Democratic and Republican White Houses alike.
In 1990, most voted no when President George H.W. Bush compromised with Democrats on a deficit-reduction bill including tax increases. Three years later, all of them voted no on a deficit-reduction package signed by President Bill Clinton.
The following decade, Republican opposition sank President George W. Bush’s call for an immigration reform measure providing legal status to undocumented immigrants. The same thing happened a few years later to President Barack Obama, which helps explain why Biden hasn’t dived into the issue this year.
Having squelched Clinton’s government-heavy national health care proposal 15 years before, congressional Republicans voted unanimously against Obama’s market-based approach. No matter that the Affordable Care Act was modeled after a conservative think-tank idea that then-Gov. Mitt Romney had turned into a Republican plan for Massachusetts.
The details of what Democratic presidents propose explain only part of Republican resistance. As Senate Leader Mitch McConnell once explained, withholding all GOP support denies Democratic initiatives the bipartisan label that might “convey to the public that this is OK.”
When events left little alternative during the Obama years, McConnell negotiated deals with then-Vice President Biden, his long-time Senate colleague. One ended a debt-crisis in which House Republican had forced the first-ever downgrade in America’s credit rating; another let previously-enacted tax-cuts for wealthy Americans expire to avoid a “fiscal cliff” that would have raised taxes on everyone.
Now he seeks a deal on infrastructure. The popularity of new roads and bridges makes that, in theory, a ripe target for bipartisan compromise.
But because infrastructure investments involve a lot of government spending, congressional Republicans didn’t act even when Trump rhetorically embraced a major program. Not only does Biden want to spend more than Trump, he proposes higher taxes to pay for it.
To that, the Republican answer is unequivocally no.
After Biden’s talks with GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia collapsed last week, five Senate Republicans and five Democrats announced a compromise infrastructure “framework.” It, too, rejected tax increases but proposed more spending than Capito had.
The White House did not reject it. Though tax hikes represent Biden’s first option, he has signaled that he considers some one-time infrastructure investments worth adding to near-term deficits because they will enhance the nation’s long-run productive capacity.
Yet most remain pessimistic that a deficit-financed infrastructure compromise can attract support from at least 10 GOP senators, the minimum needed to join Democrats in surmounting a filibuster. Though congressional Republicans readily swelled the deficit to enact Trump’s tax cuts, for Democratic spending programs their answer tends to be no.
The failure of bipartisan compromise need not quash Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, which in addition to infrastructure investments includes expensive new programs to help struggling families up the economic ladder. Biden could advance it through the special budget process known as “reconciliation,” which requires only a simple majority vote rather than a filibuster-proof 60 ayes in the Senate.
That route, which Democratic leaders have already set in motion, would not require any Republican votes. It would require every Senate Democrat and nearly every House Democrat to say yes.