Stop giving credence to bad-faith negotiations on pandemic rescue package

NBC News publishes fantasy of compromise with Senate Republicans — who will continue to say, “No”

Senate Democrats are proceeding with the budget reconciliation process as a means to pass a pandemic rescue package for the economy, after a group of 10 Republican senators presented a plan to President Joe Biden that was only a third the size of his $1.9 trillion relief proposal. But mainstream media still can’t give up the fantasy of pushing for an imagined bipartisan cooperation with Republicans.

The alternative to prolonged bipartisan negotiations, which Democrats largely doubt would get anywhere given expected Republican recalcitrance, would be for the newly elected administration to actually get something done.

Yet an opinion piece from Tuesday evening, Covid stimulus checks and other aid talks show McConnell's era of just saying no has ended,” perfectly illustrates how this vacuous line of political commentary still lives on, and will be picked up in mainstream outlets.

The piece is written by David Mark, senior editor at the Washington Examiner, acknowledges that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) goal during the Obama years was “to deny the White House political wins.” But somehow, he promises, everything will be different this time, as signaled by the new round of COVID-19 relief talks:

Then there’s the matter of trust in Republican intentions, or lack thereof. Congressional Democrats look back a dozen years to the start of the Obama administration and conclude they fell for a political rope-a-dope routine, getting played by Republicans in negotiations over an economic stimulus package and health care reform. This time they’re determined not to avoid getting strung along by Republicans for weeks or months only to see GOP lawmakers reject their proposal anyway.

But the very fact that 20 percent of the Senate Republican conference is presenting a counteroffer and is willing to negotiate at all, rather than rejecting the Biden administration coronavirus aid plan outright and sitting on their hands, reflects an enormous shift in Washington’s political dynamics. Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, followed by Democrats winning their first Senate majority in more than six years through a pair of Georgia victories, means that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “just say no” approach is over.

Mark even suggests that McConnell could be playing some kind of constructive role this time: “While McConnell has been silent about the senators’ initiative, it’s doubtful they would have freelanced without at least tacit approval from him. Just a few months ago when McConnell had ironclad control over the Senate Republican conference, he would have put the kibosh on such a meeting.”

There is already reason to believe that the Senate Republicans are not (or cannot) act in good faith in these negotiations: The New York Times reported — in a piece that had otherwise continued to peddle this narrative that bipartisanship is somehow necessary — that Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), one of the 10 Republican participants, had “described the plan as a way to ‘rein in’ Mr. Biden’s proposal, which some Republicans on Capitol Hill are deriding as a ‘bailout’ of states run by Democrats.” (In fact, Republican-run state governments are hurting, too, while residents of those states have also benefited from relief measures. But the charge of a “blue bailout” has been a consistent Republican talking point since last year.)

The fact is, Senate Democrats have already seen this movie of protracted bipartisan negotiations, with  the much-hyped “Gang of Six” negotiations over health care reform in 2009. Not only did those talks go nowhere, but over time it became obvious that Republicans had specifically intended that they go nowhere.

As Norm Ornstein wrote in The Atlantic in 2015, the lead Democratic negotiator, then-Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), began with a template of past Republican proposals, “built around an individual mandate and exchanges with private insurers—much to the chagrin of many Democrats and liberals who wanted, if not a single-payer system, at least one with a public insurance option.”

That plan indeed became the basis for the Affordable Care Act as it was finally passed — with Republicans opposing it at every step. Two of the Republican negotiators, then-Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), actively attacked the proposals in public.

And as Ornstein wrote, McConnell was lurking behind the scenes: “What became clear before September, when the talks fell apart, is that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell had warned both Grassley and Enzi that their futures in the Senate would be much dimmer if they moved toward a deal with the Democrats that would produce legislation to be signed by Barack Obama. They both listened to their leader.”

During a town hall meeting back home — while the negotiations were supposedly still ongoing — Enzi effectively admitted that the talks were just a stalling operation. “If I hadn't been involved in this process as long as I have and to the depth as I have, you would already have national health care,” he said. He further admitted that his ultimate success was in getting Democrats to drop their own ideas rather than to adopt any of his own: “It's not where I get them to compromise, it's what I get them to leave out.”

Grassley, meanwhile, told one of his local crowds that they had “every right to fear” the right-wing scare campaign about death panels, telling his constituents that they should not have “a government run plan to decide when to pull the plug on grandma.”

And yet, the Gang of Six process continued to be treated seriously in mainstream media, as if the Republican participants had genuine ideas and sincere intentions.

Mark only vaguely acknowledges any of this, and rather than citing the historical record himself, he bases his discussion of what happened to Obama’s writings on the events — and then continues obstinately pushing this brand of political naiveté:

Obama recalls in his recent memoir wasting eight months trying to negotiate, futilely, with Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican, on health care, who when pressed on his stance in a White House meeting admitted there were no concessions he could be offered that would win his support.

But whether any Senate Republicans actually support Biden’s Covid-19 aid plan is almost beside the point. Both sides have reasons for the talks to continue for now. That GOP lawmakers are even trying to negotiate with a Democratic president is a significant — and welcome — change from the recent political past. And a sign that political momentum is on the president’s side, not theirs.

Whether any Senate Republicans would actually support a coronavirus relief plan is certainly not “almost beside the point.” It is the whole point.