Opinion: Democrats: Don’t take the GOP bait and get bogged down in the process


HR King
May 29, 2001
Opinion by
Paul Waldman
July 19, 2021|Updated today at 1:36 p.m. EDT
Does talk of parliamentary procedure bore you to tears? If so, you’re like most Americans. But when making laws is your job, it’s possible to lose sight of how little the average person cares about the intricacies of the legislative process.
It has seldom been more important than it is right now, as Democrats try to pass an enormously consequential infrastructure package, that they keep this reality at the forefront of their minds:
Voters don’t care about process. They care about results.
That applies to voters everywhere — even, to take a state completely at random, West Virginia.
At this critical moment, Republicans are trying to bait Democratic senators into getting so caught up in procedure that they fail to accomplish their broader goal: passing a bill that shores up American infrastructure and improves people’s lives. Democrats would be crazy to take the bait.

Here’s the latest: Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has decided to hold the first procedural vote Wednesday on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which senators from both parties are still negotiating. Schumer is essentially telling them to iron out remaining differences to keep the process moving.

But it’s important to understand that this vote is not on the bill itself. It’s a “cloture” vote to begin debate. It needs the support of 60 senators (to break a GOP filibuster), not just 51. If 10 Republicans don’t vote with all 50 Democrats, the bipartisan bill hits a brick wall erected by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
The reaction by even supposedly “moderate” Republicans engaged in this negotiation has been quite revealing. They insisted with outrage that because the bill hasn’t been finalized, they couldn’t possibly vote for cloture. It would be a “dereliction of duty to vote on something that hasn’t been drafted yet,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “How can I vote for cloture when the bill isn’t written?” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.). “We don’t want to rush this process and make mistakes,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
This idea — that it would be wrong to vote for cloture without knowing and favoring the final version — assumes that the Republican filibuster is the default, that no bill should even get a debate unless it has the support of 10 Republicans.
And of course the bill will change along the way, and senators will ultimately have to make up their minds about its final version. That’s how legislation works. The senators hope to produce an agreement, but then their text will be changed and amended, and maybe they’ll all vote for it in the end or maybe they won’t.
But these Republicans are already previewing the argument they’ll make to justify themselves when they abandon this bipartisan deal. It happened too fast, Schumer forced our hand, the process wasn’t fair!
And guess what: Voters won’t care. Nor should they.
What matters is whether the substance of the bill — improvements to roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, broadband, and much more — happens or doesn’t happen. Fortunately, if and when Republicans decide to blow up the bipartisan bill, Democrats can fold all those provisions into the larger reconciliation bill they hope to pass with a simple majority.
That’s no sure thing, of course; most importantly, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) will have to be satisfied. But he will do well to remember that his voters don’t care any more about procedure than anyone else.
You wouldn’t know it from his infuriating paeans to the filibuster, but Manchin isn’t a staunch supporter of it because that’s what his constituents demand. It’s not like people run up to him at the Kanawha County Fair and say, “Joe, don’t you ever let them reduce the 60-vote threshold to invoke cloture!” He does this because his political identity is built on restraining Democrats; the filibuster is just an instrument to that end.
But at this stage of the infrastructure process, Manchin can say to himself: Mission accomplished. He made a significant and visible effort to get bipartisanship. He was a huge pain in the rear for Democrats. And in the end — an end that is growing near — he can deliver the goods, in the form of a whole bunch of spending his constituents will benefit from.
Manchin is certainly negotiating in good faith with his GOP colleagues; he would genuinely like a bipartisan infrastructure bill, as both a political and a substantive matter. But he and every other Democrat need to remember that it’s a terrible mistake to count on the good faith of Republicans. There’s nothing more important to them than seeing Democrats fail.
So Democrats can’t forget the big picture: Bipartisanship is all well and good, but what really matters is what you did for Americans. Whether they get clean water will matter a lot more than whether the cloture vote happened this week or next week, or whether their town’s pipes were replaced because of a 51-50 reconciliation vote or a 60-40 vote on a different bill.
They don’t care about those things, nor should they. And Democrats shouldn’t forget it for a second.