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Infrastructure deal is a mirage of hope in a poisoned Congress

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

Updated: Thu, 29 Jul 2021 10:45:02 GMT

Source: CNN

For the briefest moment, amid an inferno of fury, mistrust, stunts and ill-faith, Congress actually worked.

The Senate vote Wednesday on a bipartisan infrastructure deal was merely on opening debate on the plan, with legislative text yet to be released. But such tiny breakthroughs in Capitol Hill stalemate pass for huge success in a body that reflects, and now actively deepens, America's bitter national estrangement.

The bill -- based on a still fragile compromise wrought in weeks of talks -- is a critical plank of Joe Biden's presidency as he seeks to show Americans that flailing, politicized Washington can still fix big things. In a treacherous path toward passage, the measure could still be derailed by Republicans intimidated by former President Donald Trump, who issued a vague threat of 2022 primaries against Republicans if the deal happened. It also needs the courage of more moderate GOP senators to survive, as the demands of progressive House Democrats threaten to blow it up.

While more than $1 trillion for roads and bridges and other physical infrastructure represents a critical investment, the symbolism of Wednesday's vote is more important. The President hopes it will validate the parable of his inaugural address — that "politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path."

Sadly, most current evidence suggests the opposite in a Congress consumed by its poisoned antagonism, where traditional ideological fractures are exacerbated by the trauma of the January 6 insurrection and the stress of the pandemic.

On Wednesday alone, Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado reportedly threw a mask back at a floor staffer who offered her one so that she could comply with the reinstatement of masking requirements, announced by the Capitol attending physician late Tuesday in light of new US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance amid rising case numbers across the country.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is hardly maintaining the decorum expected of an office that is second in line to succeed the President. She described Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy as "such a moron." She was frustrated that her fellow Californian is leading his conference on a made-for-Fox-News crusade against masking guidelines with the kind of zeal that might be better employed urging Republican voters to get vaccinated. McCarthy had earlier turned masking into another culture war battle by accusing liberals of wanting "a perpetual pandemic state."

The modern House has featured some combustible political characters. But relations between the two leaders of the rival parties have never been this toxic in living memory.

As petulance over masking burst out all over the House, GOP Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida and Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman of California got into a yelling match over the former's refusal to cover his face.

"This rule is stupid. Let's just be very blunt about this," Donalds said, adding he had not been vaccinated but had recovered from Covid-19.

Masks may not have been needed if the nearly half of House Republicans who have refused to publicly divulge their vaccination status would say whether they have actually gone ahead and gotten vaccinated, amid widespread skepticism of life-saving shots in states that Trump won.

Wednesday's business further degenerated when GOP Rep. Chip Roy of Texas earned a standing ovation from pro-Trump Republicans, including noted conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, after he declared, "This institution is a sham. And we should adjourn and shut this place down."

A House that reflects a divided nation

The Founders wanted the US House of Representatives, where members serve two-year terms, to foster what James Madison or Alexander Hamilton, the presumed authors of Federalist 52, called an "intimate sympathy" for the mood of the people.

If America is mirrored by the current House, it is locked in an insoluble feud, ripped apart by the pandemic, and caught up in fierce, consequential fights that will decide who wields power and whether democracy survives.

The infrastructure deal aside, Republicans and Democrats lack any common political language to forge the people's business. And the bitterness is personal.

Wednesday's masking circus followed an extraordinarily tense and emotional day on Capitol Hill on Tuesday when four police officers beaten and abused by Trump's mob on January 6 encapsulated the still barely believable events of the day, when the country's age-old tradition of peaceful transfers of power was shaken.

Their moving testimony revealed qualities of duty, patriotism, morality and courage that are so lacking in Trump's apologists in the House GOP. McCarthy, acting on Trump's wishes, did everything he could to scupper their chances to tell their stories in a depoliticized environment.

Congressional failure does not rest on one party alone. But the repressive legacy of the insurrection is proving that much of the current extreme dysfunction is being driven by the House GOP's decision to abandon the defense of democratic principles to preserve Trump's personality cult.

The opening of the select committee featuring the officers on Tuesday was accompanied by a gale of dishonesty and disinformation from GOP lawmakers covering for Trump's incitement of the invading mob.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, the new third-ranking leader in the House GOP conference, has ridden arch fealty to Trump to power. She is now making absurd claims that the ex-President is not to blame for the worst attack on the US Capitol in 200 years but the speaker is.

"Nancy Pelosi bears responsibility, as Speaker of the House, for the tragedy that occurred on January 6," the New York lawmaker said on Tuesday, ignoring the fact that Pelosi isn't in charge of security for the Capitol, and the obvious point that the ex-President perpetrated one of the worst assaults on US democracy. Several leading Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said they did not watch Tuesday's hearings on the Capitol insurrection -- a metaphor for their party's failure to impose accountability for the outrage.

Decency hiding in plain sight

Congress -- which typically enjoys rock bottom approval ratings -- has always been an easy target.

But there are still pockets of decency among the rascals and political hacks on Capitol Hill. Republican Reps. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Liz Cheney of Wyoming, for instance, are risking their political careers and defying McCarthy's boycott of the select committee to expose Trump's extremism and their own colleagues' cowardice.

Kinzinger, who fought back tears in the committee's opening hearing when praising the officers, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday that his colleagues needed to get on the right side of history on the insurrection.

"If somebody really thinks that this narrative of January 6 that some are trying to push is actually going to be the one written in the history books -- it's not. It's just a question of when, is it sooner or later," Kinzinger said. "But it's coming. So I wouldn't want to be on -- the one out there on TV pushing the 'Big Lie' and think somebody is going to eventually be proud of what I was doing."

Much of the Senate was on Wednesday remembering the late Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, who was as conservative as his state, but also sometimes sought friendly accommodation across the aisle, in a way that is now rare.

"I always saw him first as a public servant who conducted himself with decency, honor, and integrity," Biden said in a statement, remembering his former Senate sparring partner who died after a biking accident.

McConnell, who is blamed by many Democrats for the fierce partisanship in the Senate after bending custom to build a conservative Supreme Court majority, is nevertheless making an important gesture to help end the pandemic. The polio survivor is using campaign funds to finance radio ads in his state of Kentucky to persuade holdouts to get the vaccine.

In another sign that Senate chivalry is not dead, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who pulled off a financial rescue of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, issued a statement defending US gymnast Simone Biles, who pulled out of several events at the Tokyo Games citing her mental health and faced attacks from some conservative pundits and online trolls.

"I love and admire Simone Biles and our Olympians ...," Romney wrote on Twitter. "I take pride in them, not so much for the medals they win as for the grace, humanity & character of their hearts."

Romney's comment was the latest reminder of his own humanity -- and another sign that the relentless attack on his character, branding him a corporate vampire with no soul, by former President Barack Obama's 2012 reelection campaign was a harsh one.

But Romney came under fresh attack from another ex-President on Wednesday. Trump lacerated him as a "SUPER RINO" -- an acronym for "Republican in name only" -- in his statement on the infrastructure deal.

"This will be a victory for the Biden Administration and Democrats and will be heavily used in the 2022 election," Trump wrote, recreating the bile that once poured from his Oval Office. "It is a loser for the USA, a terrible deal and makes the Republicans look weak, foolish and dumb."

Trump's vitriol and his capacity to dictate Republican opinion is one big reason why Wednesday's vision of a functioning Congress is just a mirage.


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