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Opinion | Can Congressional Democrats Make a Deal on Covid Spending With Mitt Romney?


They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This aphorism now leaps to mind every time I hear that the White House and congressional Democrats are trying yet again to win Senator Joe Manchin’s backing for this or that proposal.

Be it Build Back Better, voting rights, a new, whittled-down version of Build Back Better or whatever agenda item President Biden hopes to advance, at some point, the story line always seems to come back around to: But Mr. Manchin, the conservative West Virginian, has objections — accompanied by a reminder of how, in this evenly split Senate, Mr. Manchin is Washington’s real decider.

At some point, this dance starts to feel less like a commentary on Mr. Manchin’s politics than on his Democratic colleagues’ desperation.

Which is why it has been a nice break to watch the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, working to hammer out a new Covid relief deal with Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah. Certainly, this wasn’t Mr. Schumer’s first choice: Democrats had wanted to move this pandemic package along party lines, as part of the government funding bill being passed using reconciliation. But that plan abruptly fell to pieces in the House. Now any relief bill will need to clear a 60-vote threshold and thus require significant Republican support.

The prospects for success remain shaky. The package is expected to get squished from $15.6 billion down to around $10 billion. And some Republicans have expressed doubts about whether we really need to be throwing more money at things like prepping for future variants. (Let no one accuse Congress of taking the long view!) All last week, Mr. Romney and Mr. Schumer swapped suggestions for how to pay for the package. Assuming something does pass the Senate, it will still need to make its way through the House. With Congress, failure is pretty much always an option.

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It is nonetheless refreshing to have someone other than Mr. Manchin at the center of these negotiations — and especially Mr. Romney. While plenty partisan, he is the exceedingly rare Republican to have shown himself willing, now and then, to put country over party. (See: The Impeachment Trials of President Donald J. Trump, Vols. 1 and 2.) He has also displayed the occasional willingness to embrace bipartisan legislation. His negotiating work on the infrastructure deal got him slammed as a “Super RINO” by Mr. Trump.

Going forward, Democratic leaders should consider drawing Mr. Romney into the center of the action more often, taking some of the heat — and light — off Mr. Manchin whenever possible.

Trying to corral Mr. Manchin on policy votes (versus, say, judicial nominations) has proved an extended exercise in teeth-grinding, hair-pulling frustration — not to mention public humiliation for the president. (Look! The guy can’t even get his own team members in line!) No Republican is going to aid the Democrats very often. But trying to find sporadic, narrow patches of common ground with Mr. Romney could hardly prove less productive in terms of getting stuff done. And politically speaking, it could be considerably more expedient.

The political incentives for Mr. Manchin and Mr. Romney are different. By and large, it is not in Mr. Manchin’s interest to help Democrats achieve their legislative dreams — whatever the policy particulars. The voters of West Virginia love Donald Trump more than his own daddy did, and Mr. Manchin clings to office by aggressively frustrating his fellow Democrats. That is his brand. His superpower. The moment he stops, he’s on the fast track to being dumped for a MAGA-head.

Mr. Romney’s situation is slightly more nuanced. Utah is a blood-red state but not a wildly Trumpy one. Plenty of Republican voters there remain skeptical of Mr. Trump’s vulgar charms. In the Senate, Mr. Romney has worked to build his brand as a reasonable elder statesman rather than as a MAGA sycophant — a position with renewed appeal for non-wingers and swing voters still recovering from Trump fatigue. His occasional heresies put Mr. Romney at risk of a primary challenge from the right if he runs for re-election in 2024, but they have not destroyed him back home the way they could have in some conservative enclaves.

It helps that Mr. Romney, the 2012 G.O.P. presidential nominee, has a national stature enjoyed by few in his party. He has as much potential as anyone to serve as a non-Trumpy power center — to remind Republicans that they don’t have to be known as the party of revanchists, racists and conspiracy theorists. There is no way he will ever be Trumpy enough to win the hearts of MAGA zealots. (Those impeachment votes will never be forgiven. Ever.) The way for him to distinguish himself in today’s Republican Party is to double down on modeling civility, pragmatism and sanity.

Am I naïve enough to think that Mr. Romney would ever throw himself into helping Democrats pass scads of meaty bills? Of course not. The guy isn’t politically suicidal — or progressive. We are talking about a game of inches: extending a child tax credit of sorts here, reforming the Electoral Count Act there, that sort of targeted progress.

Besides, at the risk of coming across as purely cynical, let’s say Mr. Romney becomes a frequent negotiating partner for Democrats but ultimately helps pass few if any bills. Mr. Biden can at least blame the opposition for foot-dragging rather than Mr. Manchin, a member of his own team. By seeking and failing to cut a deal with Mr. Romney and the sprinkling of other moderate Republicans who talk a big bipartisan game, Mr. Biden can stress that he tried his darnedest to fulfill his vow to bridge the partisan gulf. By contrast, when Mr. Manchin refuses to play ball, as he so often does, it makes Mr. Biden look weak and leaves Democrats fielding awkward questions about their lack of unity.

So maybe it’s time to stop lavishing so much attention on Mr. Manchin — to let him become just one more vote that Democrats aren’t counting on for policy help. At the same time, Mr. Romney should be pressed to show just how willing he is to risk doing what is good for his constituents — and the nation.

The idea may sound nuts. But at least it’s a different kind of insanity.



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