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About Time

Democrats Gave Mitch McConnell a Taste of His Own Medicine

Embracing the Senate minority leader’s bare knuckle tactics gets results.

Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

Shortly after confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, less than two weeks before the 2020 presidential election, a gloating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood on the floor of the Senate to spike the football. “We’re a constitutional republic,” McConnell said. “Legitimacy does not flow from their feelings. Legitimacy is not the result of how they feel about it. You can’t win them all, and elections have consequences.”

Just four years earlier, under President Obama, McConnell had refused to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat nine months before the next presidential election. But under President Trump, McConnell filled a vacancy less than three months before voters headed to the polls. McConnell’s message to critics who pointed out this double standard? Cry about it. Here was a perfect distillation of McConnell’s political vision. Precedent doesn’t matter. Principle doesn’t either. Nothing matters except power.

Now it’s McConnell’s turn to cry. On Wednesday, the Senate minority leader and the entire Republican Party were blindsided after Democrats came to a surprise deal on the Inflation Reduction Act, a bill that would raise corporate taxes, provide green energy funding, and cut prescription drug costs. Republicans were seemingly upset because they felt they had been tricked into passing additional legislation on Democrats’ agenda.

Shortly before the deal was announced, Republicans had joined with Democrats to pass a bill that would provide $280 billion to boost semiconductor production in the United States. For some Republicans, the problems went back further—to a bipartisan infrastructure bill (passed in November) and gun control legislation (passed in June). McConnell was making deals with his counterpart, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Now Schumer and Democrats were double-crossing them by putting together a spending package after they had already roped Republicans into passing a series of smaller bills.

The result has been fury and acrimony among Republicans. McConnell and House Leader Kevin McCarthy are reportedly at odds. “Too often, we’re seeing Republicans in the Senate losing fights because they’re not sticking together,” one Republican House member told CNN. “In the majority, we would hope that the Senate would be a partner, rather than an obstacle.”

“We got our ass kicked. It’s just that simple,” said Republican Senator John Kennedy. “Looks to me like we got rinky-doo’d. That’s a Louisiana word for ‘screwed.’ And we got our ass kicked. That’s the way my people back home see it.”

The problem, it seems, is that the typically more tepid Democrats have started to act like Republicans. The decision to hoodwink the GOP was a positively McConnellish move: Pass a series of bipartisan bills that wouldn’t have moved forward if Republicans knew that a version of the Democrats’ reconciliation bill was still alive; then, after passing them, move forward with that reconciliation bill. McConnell can only fume. “It’s an unmitigated disaster for the country, and we’re going to fight it as hard as we can,” he told reporters after the deal became public.

If Democrats are able to pass their new reconciliation bill—something that’s far from guaranteed—there is little Republicans can do to stop them. The party’s majorities in both houses are slim but large enough to move forward a bill that Democrats desperately need as they head out on the campaign trail. This partly explains why some Republicans are getting creative—and a little deranged—about other options.

Maine Republican Susan Collins warned Democrats that if they move forward with the IRA, it could doom efforts to codify legal same-sex marriage. But this would be the equivalent of the GOP cutting off its nose to spite its face. Marriage equality is extremely popular; polling in June showed that it was supported by 70 percent of the country. Holding protections for same-sex marriage hostage would surely backfire for Republicans, particularly those with reputations as centrists like Collins. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans also blocked a bill providing health care to millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits—another popular, moral piece of legislation. One explanation is that it was payback.

For Democrats, there is a lesson here: Power politics works. You can force Republicans to take tough votes and trick them into supporting other pieces of legislation when it’s convenient. “There is often no serious penalty for political hardball, no matter how far it pushes the procedural envelope,” wrote The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent. Republicans can fume all they want, but the party has largely lost interest in passing constructive bipartisan legislation anyway. “We’re just doing what we have to do,” Schumer told reporters after being asked if he had tricked the Senate minority leader. It was a quote worthy of McConnell.