During his televised town hall last Thursday, Joe Biden declared, “There’s going to be, I promise you, between four and eight Republican senators who are … going to be willing to move on things where there’s bipartisan consensus.”
To skeptics of bipartisanship, the immediate, incredulous response is: You can’t identify four, let alone eight, Republican senators who have proven willing to cross the aisle when it counts. (Besides, if Democrats gain a net of three or four Senate seats, then Biden would need nine or 10 Republicans to assemble the 60-vote supermajority necessary to end filibusters.)
The skeptics are correct to observe there is no reliable moderate faction in the existing Senate GOP caucus. While Barack Obama secured more bipartisan legislation than is commonly remembered, many of the Senate Republicans who supported such legislation are no longer in the chamber. And one of the few remaining, Maine’s Susan Collins, will be a likely casualty on Election Day.
But that doesn’t automatically mean a President Biden will be proven wrong. We can’t know yet how a Biden victory, especially a big Biden victory, will affect the political calculations of the Senate Republicans left standing.
Most Republicans will have to worry about potential right-wing primary challenges, but they may also have to worry about an electoral middle that has soured on belligerent Trumpism. Some of them may believe throttling Biden is the fastest way to rebound, but others may conclude a discredited party needs to convince the public it has to capacity to take governing seriously again. And any Republican who wants to save the legislative filibuster and keep the Supreme Court at nine numbers should recognize that the way to retain long-standing norms is to show that the norms can produce more legislation than gridlock.
Still, who could those four to eight Republican senators be?
Two names are obvious. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has already broken ranks on big votes, such as refusing to support the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, and helping to block repeal of the Affordable Care Act. During the Obama administration she supported the Senate’s 2013 immigration reform bill and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The other promising candidate is Mitt Romney of Utah. While he hasn’t abandoned his fellow Republicans on any major legislation or judicial nominees, he did vote to convict President Trump at the impeachment trial. And Romney retains a moderate streak from his days as Massachusetts governor, when he enacted health insurance reform that was the precursor to Obamacare.
After that, the list of potential prospects is a lot less obvious. But, as Republican strategist Liz Mair told me in a recent YouTube discussion, “home state interests” could prompt other GOP senators to consider cooperation.
Mair pointed to West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito as a “pro-choice Republican woman” who represents an electorate that “doesn’t tend to feel that they benefit from a lot of belt-tightening. They actually do like spending money.” She noted that since Ohio’s electorate has some demographic overlap with West Virginia’s, and may in fact turn blue this year, Rob Portman could be open for business. (Capito and Portman score in the top 10 of the Lugar Center’s “Bipartisan Index,” which ranks senators based on their propensity to sponsor bipartisan legislation.) Mair also counseled Biden that any spending bill with the potential to boost rural America might be of interest to Missouri’s Roy Blunt.
Biden is also a devout believer in the value of personal relationships, which he has in spades. Twelve Republicans whom Biden served with in the Senate will still be in the chamber next year. Three of them — Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, Alabama’s Richard Shelby and Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe — are in their upper 80s. As they are likely in their final terms, they don’t have to sweat the prospect of a primary challenge.
On what issues might they have ideological flexibility? Grassley, who is also in the top 10 of the Bipartisan Index, has taken pride in his bipartisan bill to lower the cost of prescription drugs (though he has charged Democrats with abandoning it this year.) Shelby, as Appropriations Committee chairman, has a healthy working relationship with the Democratic ranking member (and fellow octogenarian) Pat Leahy. Shelby has also expressed openness to an idea that some believe would grease the bipartisan legislative wheels: bringing back earmarks. Inhofe has long attracted the ire of progressives for his cantankerous rejection of climate science, but he is also known as a supporter of increased infrastructure spending, and has even expressed support for a gas tax hike to pay for it.
North Carolina’s Richard Burr, another Biden Senate colleague, has said he is not running for another term. Burr notably crossed the aisle in 2010 to support repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” As chairman of the intelligence committee, he worked with Democrats to investigate contacts between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, producing a comprehensive report that went beyond Robert Mueller’s investigation. North Carolina’s potential to turn blue on Election Day could also influence Burr.
If the mercurial Lindsey Graham survives his South Carolina reelection race, his desire to be in “the room where it happens” could make him once again a potential collaborator. Graham did support the Senate immigration reform bill in 2013. Three years prior, he worked with then-Sen. John Kerry on a grand bargain to cap greenhouse gas emissions, before abandoning the bill right before its release. That checkered record, plus his on-again/off-again friendship with Biden, raises questions about his trustworthiness. But if Biden is looking to scratch out eight or more Republicans, he can’t be too choosy.
One disadvantage for Biden is that there are many newer Senate Republicans whom he has not had the chance to develop any personal bonds, and they are generally a more partisan crew. But his running mate may be able to fill in some of that gap.
During her current Senate term, Kamala Harris has partnered with Kentucky’s Rand Paul on cash bail reform, and South Carolina’s Tim Scott on a federal anti-lynching bill (though Paul recently received stern criticism from Harris for single-handedly blocking the anti-lynching bill). She co-sponsored legislation with Burr to criminalize the distribution of revenge porn. She worked with Scott, Arkansas’ John Boozman and Texas’ John Cornyn on supporting restaurants providing food to the poor. And she teamed up with Cornyn and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse on a measure requiring foreign media operations to disclose if they are also registered foreign agents.
Then there is the question of whether Biden can thaw the Democratic relationship with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The Machiavellian Kentuckian is hardly one to be bipartisan for bipartisanship’s sake. But Biden and McConnell do have a productive history together. It was Biden and McConnell who struck the 2012 “fiscal cliff” tax increase deal, cutting politically stingier Democratic leader Harry Reid out of the talks. At the end of the Biden’s vice presidency, McConnell honored him on the Senate floor by saying, “’Get Joe on the phone’ is shorthand for ‘time to get serious’ in my office.”
I suspect Biden’s best bet for finding a sufficient number of Republicans to secure 60 votes on any given issue will be to work around, not with, McConnell. But having an existing relationship with him can’t hurt.
Of course, none of the Republicans listed here is a sure bet, far from it. The most moderate, Murkowski, as an oil-friendly Alaskan, would be a very hard vote to secure on an issue of huge importance to Democrats: climate change. Romney’s moderation as of late has been more performative than substantive. And the rest have little to no track record of crossing the aisle on major bills.
But it would be a mistake to presume at the onset that every Republican is a one-dimensional knee-jerk obstructionist. Each has his or her own interests, and those interests may be significantly altered by the upcoming election results. In a new Biden administration, the Republicans’ willingness to collaborate and cooperate should be tested, in good faith, at the beginning of the next Congress.
Biden’s ability to pressure Republicans may be aided by a chorus of Democrats clamoring for the elimination of the legislative filibuster. But those Democrats should also give Biden the latitude to see if Republicans are prepared to put Trumpian petulance and bluster behind them. Pushing the nuclear button may not be necessary to get government working again.