Central to Joe Biden’s presidential candidacy was an optimism that Republicans could, and would, change when Donald Trump was no longer president.
“With Donald Trump out of the way, you’re going to see a number of my Republican colleagues have an epiphany. Mark my words. Mark my words,” Biden said in late 2019.
Biden continued to hold on to this belief, and he touted his record of reaching across the aisle. A month before he took office as president, Biden again predicted “you’re going to see an awful lot change” in the Republican Party with Trump out of the White House, acknowledging it could, however, take six to eight months before he had a strong working relationship with the GOP.
The moment in which Republicans are supposed to have their epiphany is here, with Biden at the six-month mark of his presidency. And yet the Republican Party is just as beholden to Trump as ever.
There is a chance for a $1.1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package ― long an area with interest on both sides of the aisle ― which has Biden’s backing, to get through the Senate. But on Wednesday, every single GOP senator blocked a vote to begin consideration of the bill, saying they still need to work out some details. It remains unclear whether that legislation could attract enough votes to pass.
But even if the infrastructure measure passes, that does not mean the GOP has had its epiphany. Both in Washington and in the states, the Republican Party is still firmly in thrall to Trump.
In June, Senate Republicans blocked the For the People Act, a sweeping democracy reform bill that would strengthen voting access and implement campaign finance reform measures. Every single Republican voted against moving forward on the legislation.
“One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last month, a comment that was reminiscent of his 2010 remark that the “single most important thing” for Republicans to achieve “is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
More recently, McConnell said it is “highly unlikely” Republicans would let Biden fill an open Supreme Court seat if they retake the Senate.
“We certainly see the influence of Donald Trump. There’s no question about that,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “He has a tremendous impact on how the Republicans are responding to critical issues, such as the Jan. 6 commission. … I think Donald Trump is still the dominant influence among Republican elected officials.”
“I think what candidate Biden said was what we all hoped would be the case, but we haven’t seen it come to fruition yet. But maybe we will,” he added.
Conservatives have also blamed Biden for everything from causing a shortage of chicken wings to ruining girls’ sports to destroying stay-at-home parenting.
The clearest display of the Republican Party’s fealty to Trump has been its response to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters. Senate Republicans blocked the creation of an independent commission that had bipartisan support and would have investigated the riot and looked at how to prevent another deadly incident moving forward.
Allowing the commission to go forward would have renewed debate ― and likely come to some inconvenient conclusions ― about the former president’s role in encouraging his supporters to march to the Capitol and object to the certification of the election results in favor of Biden.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) instead created a select committee to investigate the riot. Republicans would have a chance to nominate members, but Pelosi would be able to reject them. Three of the picks by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) were lawmakers who bought into Trump’s lie about the election and voted to overturn the 2020 results after the Capitol riot. (Pelosi rejected two of them, and McCarthy subsequently pulled all five of his picks.)
House Republicans also purged Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from her leadership position because she voted to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 riot and has continued to criticize him. Cheney, the daughter of a former vice president and once a rising star in the party, voted with Trump 93% of the time. But her refusal to stand idly by after Jan. 6 has put her political future in the GOP in question.
Indeed, there are a few Republicans who have been willing to call for a different course for their party. But they are not in control of the agenda and are often getting pushed out.
When asked about whether Republicans have had a post-Trump epiphany, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) ― one of the few senators willing to break with the former president ― replied, “I had mine early.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) praised Biden for being “amazingly patient” in pursuing bipartisanship.
“I think he’s going to give it really a very very sincere and persistent try, which he is doing,” he said. “We’re only six months in and there are results to show for it. I continue to be skeptical. Count me as a skeptic, but I think the president is in the bipartisan camp very clearly.”
The obsession with following Trump extends to the states. Driven by Trump’s lies and conspiracies about the election results, Arizona’s Senate Republicans launched a sham “audit” of the presidential election results in the state’s largest county. It is being run by a Trump supporter and funded largely by Trump supporters. Even though Arizona’s operation has been widely discredited ― even by some Republicans ― it’s still inspiring Republicans in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to try to launch similar efforts.
In Michigan, the executive director of the state Republican Party recently resigned after less than six months on the job after facing constant criticism and pressure from the grassroots. His error? Saying the election was not stolen and that Trump is to blame for his loss in the election.
Half of all Republican voters have also bought into Trump’s lies, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll released in June, believing the “audit” could generate evidence that could lead to Trump’s eventual reinstatement as president. A Monmouth University poll from late February also found that 65% of Republicans don’t believe that Biden’s win in 2020 was free from fraud.
And GOP candidates running nationwide are centering their pitches on Trump’s false election claims. According to The Washington Post, “Of the nearly 700 Republicans who have filed initial paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run next year for either the U.S. Senate or the House of Representatives, at least a third have embraced Trump’s false claims about his defeat.”
Since taking office, Biden has acknowledged that the Republican Party is not in the place he hoped it would be.
“I don’t understand the Republicans,” he admitted after they voted to kick Cheney out of their leadership ranks in May.
“I’ve been a Democrat for a long time. We’ve gone through periods where we’ve had internal fights and disagreements. I don’t ever remember any like this,” Biden added. “I think the Republicans are further away from trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for than I thought they would be at this point.”
Biden has had a tricky line to walk on the issue of bipartisanship. He has shown he is willing to push forward on his agenda without Republican votes, signing the American Rescue Plan ― the massive COVID-19 stimulus package ― into law even though every single Republican voted against it. His administration consistently pointed to bipartisan public support for the items in the bill, arguing that bipartisanship meant more than just having Democratic and Republican votes in Congress.
These days, pursuing bipartisanship is more about attracting the votes of moderate Democrats, like Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who have basically said they won’t help their party when it goes it alone. Their support is crucial since Democrats have just the slimmest of margins in the Senate.
But that approach has its own risks. Dragging out negotiations in the hope of getting 10 Republicans on board to overcome a filibuster to pass legislation doesn’t always amount to much. And a watered-down, compromise package could mean that other, more progressive Democratic senators refuse to support it.
And ultimately, many Democrats are gambling that the public just wants to see action, regardless of the ultimate vote breakdown.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) pointed to the American Rescue Plan and noted, “I don’t know a single person who asked me what the composition of the vote was. They want to know what’s in the bill. So we just have to focus on delivering and be less fixated on satisfying the 12 pundits who are obsessed with gangs.”
Igor Bobic and Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.
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