Democrats and Republicans are celebrating a rare bipartisan deal on a set of reforms and programs aimed at preventing gun violence.
Just as surprising — and likely key to its success — is that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell encouraged the talks and says he is likely to vote for final passage. Not only that, it's one of several bipartisan bills he's backed, or blessed talks on, under President Biden.
McConnell’s help in passing some legislation is a minor comfort for Democrats after failing to enact the core of their own agenda either through a giant 50-vote budget bill or by eliminating the filibuster. But the two phenomena are not unrelated: McConnell's limited concessions may have ensured the defeat of the rest.
As NBC News’ Sahil Kapur reports, McConnell’s turn on guns is a significant shift after he helped kill a bipartisan deal on background checks in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
It's not the only shift towards cooperation with Democrats. Bipartisan bills he's either supported, or encouraged talks over, include:
- A $550 billion infrastructure package.
- Ongoing talks to reform the Electoral Count Act and make it harder to overturn an election.
- A $250 billion domestic manufacturing and science bill that passed the Senate with 68 votes and is being negotiated in conference with the House.
Taken together, it's a modest list compared to Democrats' desired agenda. It also includes one very major exception, McConnell's successful effort to quash an independent investigation into the January 6th insurrection.
Still, it's significantly more than many Democrats expected based on their experience under President Obama, where there was a near-total blockade on major bipartisan legislation.
The political situation is different under President Biden. When Obama took office, there was virtually no chance Democrats would abandon the filibuster. It was also assumed that Democrats would not pass major parts of their agenda on party-line votes via the budget reconciliation process, which they instead used only to make tweaks to an Affordable Care Act.
For the most part, if you could deny Democrats a 60th vote on something, it wasn't going anywhere.
This time around, McConnell made it clear he was worried that Democrats, hardened by a decade of partisan obstruction, had more leverage. Those fears seemed well-founded when the Senate passed a $1.9 trillion COVID rescue plan with zero Republican votes and little pretense of trying to find any.
Looking to prevent further party-line votes on major bills, McConnell spent the next year heaping praise on Senators Joe Manchin, D-W. Va. and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. for holding the line against an all-out push to end the filibuster and for resisting Biden's multi-trillion-dollar Build Back Better plan.
Manchin and Sinema have been at the center of many of these bipartisan talks, and McConnell has notably hit the bipartisan release valve whenever they've been under the most pressure to back the party line:
- When Biden's political standing was at its highest and Manchin was hinting he might even back changes to the filibuster, McConnell encouraged infrastructure talks.
- When the White House was leading a push to pass a Manchin-backed voting rights bill by any means necessary, McConnell boosted Manchin's talks over reforming the Electoral Count Act.
- Now Manchin, who just happens to hold the fate of Biden's domestic agenda in his hands, is participating in gun talks, and McConnell is on board.
As one GOP leadership aide put it to Kapur, McConnell wants to prove the Senate is "not broken" and "those who want to change the rules are wrong."
That means convincing Manchin and Sinema, who see themselves as guardians of Senate tradition, that the old faded days of bipartisanship and consensus are alive and well.
Whether that holds after 2022 if there's a Republican-led Senate or House and McConnell no longer has to worry about their votes uncorking a flood of Democratic bills is an open question.