In December 2017, President Trump signed an executive order dramatically reducing the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, opening the door to oil and gas drilling on formerly protected land. Last week, as part of a flurry of first-day executive actions, President Biden signed an order launching a review of those monuments’ boundaries. This is a niche policy story in the grand scheme of things, and the move attracted scant attention, save for the criticisms from Utah Republicans that one might have expected. But even hardened cynics might have been surprised by the argument to which those criticisms were appended. In a statement, Mitt Romney, Mike Lee, and Utah’s House delegation, not satisfied with the claim that Biden’s move would lead to the “unilateral” enlargement of the monuments, said too that a boundary review would “only deepen divisions in this country.” “President Biden championed a message of unity during his campaign,” it reads, “and we stand ready to work across party lines towards a permanent solution.”
The statement, issued literally the day of the inauguration, was both a preview of the years to come and an early sign of the dynamics that are already shaping more consequential policy fights. If Mitt Romney, the GOP’s supposed man of reason, can, just weeks after a deadly riot instigated by his own party, exploit the anxieties provoked by that event to condemn the expansion of two national monuments practically no one in this country has heard of as “divisive,” then no part of the Biden agenda, no matter how mundane, is safe from attack. And it’s already clear that the coming hits against the administration will continue to take advantage of the president’s own words.
Mitch McConnell’s defenses of the filibuster and refusal to approve a power-sharing agreement for the management of the evenly divided Senate, for instance, have been peppered with appeals to bipartisanship. “If the talk of unity and common ground is to have meaning, and certainly if the rules from 20 years ago are to be our guide,” he said on the Senate floor the day after the inauguration, “then I cannot imagine the Democratic leader would rather hold up the power-sharing agreement than simply affirm that his side won’t be breaking this standing rule of the Senate.” The fact McConnell happily eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations in 2017 was functionally irrelevant—the standoff on power-sharing was plainly motivated by McConnell’s confidence that an end to the filibuster, if it comes, can be sold to the public as an unprecedented low in partisan politics and the end of the Senate as a noble institution.
As of Thursday, an agreement seems to have been reached between McConnell and Chuck Schumer, on the basis of renewed promises from West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Krysten Sinema, that the filibuster is here to stay. But the filibuster has been less of an obstacle to the success of the Biden administration’s first legislative push, on Covid relief, than the administration’s own trepidation that Biden will be accused of failing to bring the parties together if Democrats decide to go things alone—an attack that, again, Republicans are already making and are certain to make no matter what Biden does.
It was reported last Thursday that the White House had ordered a halt to efforts by Democratic leaders in Congress to prepare the passage of Biden’s relief package through budget reconciliation, which requires only 51 votes in the Senate rather than the 60 that would be needed to break a Republican filibuster. The president, in the words of a Politico source, was still “bipartisan-curious.” But it was already clear that no package resembling Biden’s original $1.9 trillion proposal would get Republican votes—the moderates in the caucus said so themselves. “It’s hard for me to see, when we just passed $900 billion of assistance, why we would have a package that big,” Maine’s Susan Collins told reporters last week. “Maybe a couple of months from now, the needs will be evident and we will need to do something significant, but I’m not seeing it right now.”
Then, yesterday morning, Politico’s Playbook reported a strategic shift—the White House, being represented in Senate talks by National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, had been considering splitting its relief package into two pieces. One bill, focused on narrowly targeted stimulus checks, might be passed on a bipartisan basis first, while another containing state and local government relief, funding for unemployment insurance and food stamps, and other items would be passed by Democrats through reconciliation later. But by the end of the day, it was the White House that was shooting down the deal: “We are not looking to split the package,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a press briefing. “And the reason is because we are not going to put ourselves in a place where … we’re choosing between helping families to put food on the table and making sure kids get back to school. Or making kids get back to school and getting a vaccine in the arms of Americans.”
Now, barring any late miracles emerging from bipartisan talks, all signs are pointing to one big reconciliation bill being passed along partisan lines. And even the Democratic caucus’s moderates may be on board. Asked about his stance on passing a budget resolution that would begin the reconciliation process on Thursday, Manchin said, suggestively, that he and Senate Democrats were “going to make Joe Biden successful.”
Many of the arguments Biden made for himself over the course of his campaign are now well worth revisiting. His years in the Senate, he insisted, had given him intimate knowledge of the chamber and how it works. His role in negotiating the 2009 Recovery Act and other policies during the Obama administration, it was said, proved his bona fides as a dealmaker in times of crisis. And the relationships Biden had forged with Mitch McConnell and other Republicans over the years, he claimed, were to be the key to undoing the party’s obstructionism post-Trump—Republicans frightened by Trump’s hold on the base, Biden infamously said, would experience an “epiphany,” rendering them open to his administration’s ideas.
Today, a little over a week since the inauguration, Donald Trump is as absent from the political day-to-day as he could possibly be—astonishingly, the man has been neither seen nor heard from since leaving Washington. And yet Republicans remain intransigent. Those who might suppose this is a product of Trump’s lingering influence should consider that the roadblocks to Biden’s relief package include the Republican Party’s moderates—all making arguments that have nothing whatsoever to do with Trump and that should be familiar to anyone who’s followed the last 10 to 40 years of policymaking in this country. Despite the scale of the country’s ongoing public health and economic crisis, Biden’s package is simply too large and too generous for their support. That’s it. Biden has reportedly reached out to Collins and other Republicans personally within the last few days. So far, his entreaties have yielded nothing. Democrats may well pass a decent relief bill on their own. But Biden’s preferred model of governance is already well on its way to failing its first test.