Gridlock Is Still the Main Republican Political Strategy

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

Read more opinion

Photographer: Al Drago/Getty Images

Get Jonathan Bernstein’s newsletter every morning in your inbox. Click here to subscribe.

A modified sort-of Catch of the Day goes to the political analyst Bill Scher, who notes in RealClear Politics that despite all the talk that Republicans would filibuster everything, the Senate did pass, and President Joe Biden will soon sign, a bill to extend the Paycheck Protection Program of the pandemic relief plan enacted a year ago. Yes, there was a filibuster against the extension — but it was defeated overwhelmingly in a 96-to-4 cloture vote. It’s worth mentioning that two Republican amendments were offered and defeated, so that’s also a small sign that the Senate is actually legislating.

Indeed, Scher could have pointed to two other bills that have been signed into law so far this year. One, passed by voice vote in the Senate, extended bankruptcy relief. The other, passed by unanimous consent in that chamber, allowed the Veterans Administration to provide coronavirus vaccines. (One more bill, a brief technical corrections act, also passed without a filibuster). So that demonstrates that Republicans are not blocking everything. It’s a point worth making. For all the partisan polarization in current politics, a surprising number of things move through Congress without igniting a fight between the parties.

On the other hand, here’s why this is only a sort-of Catch: The PPP measure extended a program supported by Republicans in the previous Congress and celebrated repeatedly at the time by President Donald Trump, and it’s one that supports a key Republican constituency, small businesses. So it isn’t a promising basis for moving forward. If all Republicans will support are short-term extensions of programs they set up when they were in the majority, it’s not much of an exception to their dedication to blocking almost everything.

More from

Indeed, by this point in the first term of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress in 2009, 11 substantive laws had been signed into law, compared to only six this year (the four mentioned above, plus the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief act and a waiver necessary for a recently retired general, Lloyd Austin, to serve as secretary of defense). Yes, Democrats had a larger Senate majority in 2009, but we can still safely say that Republicans have if anything increased their determination to oppose almost any legislation that Democrats support.

Can Democrats do anything to increase the number of bills that go to a vote without triggering a filibuster that makes a 60-vote supermajority necessary for passage? It’s a good idea to lower the temperature of partisan rhetoric, and if possible for Biden to avoid it, but that won’t go very far. The overwhelming fact of the current Congress is that Republicans believe that their obstruction strategy in the 111th Congress, in 2009 and 2010, was a massive success, crediting it for their November 2010 landslide despite the Affordable Care Act and other major Democratic legislative victories. Parties rarely retreat from what they believe have been winning strategies.

None of this means that Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress shouldn’t try to cut deals. For one thing, there’s always the possibility it will work. But the real reasons to reach out to Republicans are, first, to convince journalists to blame them for failing to achieve bipartisanship, and second, to convince reluctant senators that the only way to get anything major done is to maximize use of the reconciliation process available to pass many budget-related measures by a simple majority and, when that isn’t feasible, to find a way to limit or eliminate the filibuster.

1. Patricia Kim at the Monkey Cage on North Korean missiles.

2. Kevin Drum makes the case for vaccine passports.

3. Harry Enten on Biden’s approval ratings.

4. Perry Bacon Jr. on the new Georgia election law.

5. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Conor Sen on inflation.

Get Early Returns every morning in your inbox. Click here to subscribe. Also subscribe to Bloomberg All Access and get much, much more. You’ll receive our unmatched global news coverage and two in-depth daily newsletters, the Bloomberg Open and the Bloomberg Close.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at