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Opinion | McConnell just nixed a compromise stimulus. What should Democrats learn from it?

Naturally, the Senate majority leader responded to this dramatic move in his direction by immediately announcing that this compromise is a non-starter.

Instead, McConnell said, he will try to include a new version of the very small rescue package that he wants in the upcoming government funding bill, which must be passed by Dec. 11 to avoid a government shutdown. This raises the prospect that McConnell will seek to corner Democrats by putting a much smaller proposal into must-pass legislation and daring Democrats to oppose it.

Adam Jentleson, who has dealt with McConnell’s tactics up close for years as a longtime aide to former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid, immediately pointed out a problem here for Democrats:

The idea here is that by reaching this agreement with Republicans, a group of Democratic senators made it easier for McConnell to demand that they move still further in his direction once he tries to jam them with his proposal in the upcoming funding bill. Now the “compromise” position has moved to a point between $900 billion and $500 billion.

Which raises a question: Is there any serious utility at all in Democratic senators seeking compromise with Republicans, even ones who appear to be acting in good faith, if there’s simply no chance that it will meaningfully influence McConnell, and if it’s preordained that McConnell will simply seize on this to his tactical advantage?

At first glance the answer to this question would seem to be no. But this implies that there’s no point at all in trying to engage constructively with compromise-oriented Republicans on the grounds that McConnell’s tactical acumen is so fiendishly brilliant — and his position so unassailable, even though a multitrillion-dollar rescue package has overwhelming public support — that such engagement can only work in his favor.

And that’s not a very satisfying answer. Can that really be the current state of things? Where does that leave us, exactly? What should Democrats do when a handful of Republicans want to find middle ground solutions?

I posed this question to Jentleson. He argued that centrist, compromise-oriented Democrats should, at a minimum, keep in mind that this is how McConnell will tactically seize on such things, and also keep focused on the larger contrast that should be maintained between the parties as their North Star.

“Republicans are the party of small relief and Democrats are the party of big relief,” Jentleson, who is also the author of a new book on the undemocratic features of the modern Senate, told me, adding that Democrats “should not blur those lines with negotiations that achieve nothing except to manufacture cover for Republicans.”

The big problem here is that we absolutely need relief right now. Advisers to President-elect Joe Biden fear that if nothing is done in the immediate term — with the coronavirus continuing to surge everywhere, leading to more lockdowns and more retreat from economic activity — the result will be a renewed recession.

It would provide $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits for roughly four months — a lower amount than the $600 per week Democrats sought, while still offering substantial relief to tens of millions of jobless Americans. The agreement includes $160 billion in funding for state and local governments, a key Democratic priority opposed by most Republicans, as well as a temporary moratorium on some coronavirus-related lawsuits against firms and other entities — a key Republican priority that most Democrats oppose. The measure also includes funding for small businesses, schools, health care, transit authorities and student loans, among other measures.

The compromise doesn’t include direct checks to individuals, but it’s obviously still substantially better than nothing, and the need is urgent.

But McConnell won’t even go for this. And just moments ago, he began circulating something that’s far short of it — an “offer” that includes no aid to state and local governments and very little in unemployment assistance (both of which are desperately needed) and liability protections for businesses (which Democrats adamantly oppose).

So is there any point in Democrats joining in compromise efforts with a few Republicans if McConnell isn’t going to budge at all in such situations?

Centrist, compromise-minded Democrats, to be sure, have their own incentives: They like being seen to reach deals with Republicans, since it enhances their brands, and they can tell themselves they’re trying to move the debate in a constructive direction. But it’s unclear (genuinely) what good it does.

Things could shift dramatically next year, of course. Even if a bad deal is reached right now, it’s better than nothing. And once Biden is in office, House Democrats can pass a large stimulus bill with Biden’s support, and then try to bludgeon Republicans into accepting it. With economic misery spreading and under pressure to work with the new administration, Republicans might be in a weaker position.

But for now, it’s unclear how to proceed. And Jentleson allowed that there are no good answers here.

“There is no magic bullet; there is only fighting for every inch on policy that affects the lives of millions of people,” Jentleson told me. “With stakes like that, moderates have to be cognizant of how their pursuit of headlines undermines Democrats’ negotiating position.”

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