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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Mitch McConnell's fuzzy red line

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, left, and Senate

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, left, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the White House on May 12, 2021. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

Take Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seriously, if not literally, when he postures as a resistance leader of the right against new President Joe Biden and his progressive allies in Congress.

Biden wants to readjust U.S. business tax rates to help fund "big and bold" infrastructure spending. But McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday called "reopening" the tax cut law of 2017 a "red line" that he and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R.-Calif.) would not cross.

Politicians sometimes violate their own red lines. In this instance, McConnell, with half the Senate's members in his fiefdom, is defending the single most sweeping measure of the Donald Trump years, crafted by the GOP lawmakers formerly in the majority.

But the red line's exact location is hazy. Trump signed a plunge in corporate tax rates from 35% to 21%. Biden wants to go only halfway back, asking for 28%. Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat with oversized clout due to the chamber's partisan split, says he likes 25%.

Would walking back less than a third of this Trump-era tax slash really be a bridge too far for McConnell? To Biden's $4 trillion plan in two parts, McConnell has said he's willing to consider a package of $600 billion to $800 billion, with sources of funding to be named later.

But McConnell uses the language of defiant obstruction.

"One-hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration," McConnell said Wednesday, adding, "We're confronted with severe challenges from a new administration, and a narrow majority of Democrats in the House and a 50-50 Senate to turn America into a socialist country, and that's 100% of my focus."

True to his affect, Biden still sounds like he's courting the senator. "He said that about the last administration — about Barack [Obama], that he was going to stop everything — and I was able to get a lot done with him," Biden said.

Even as political theater, McConnell will have a say in crafting the future of big capital improvement projects that would come with even a scaled-down infrastructure bill.

This clash has a different dynamic from the run-up to the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package Democrats recently pushed through. Justified by the multilevel emergency, the new blast of federal cash has had instant impact here.

Two months ago, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer heralded that package's $100 billion for "New York families, workers, restaurants and small businesses." And his spokesman said the $12.6 billion in direct aid to the state government this included was enough to wipe out its deficit.

The numbers are impressive, even staggering. More than $841 million in federal stimulus aid for Long Island’s counties, towns and municipalities was to start being distributed this week. That’s $385 million to Nassau, (with a county executive race underway) and $287 million to Suffolk, according to U.S. Treasury Department figures.

New York City gets another $6 billion, more than its projected deficit, during a Democratic mayoral primary.

All this operating aid has a fiscal caveat. It temporarily masks budget imbalances — and keeps elected officials from confronting where future cuts and efficiencies may be needed.

Public money is moving around by the truckload. Don't be dazzled. How well and how wisely it will be used remains to be seen.

Dan Janison is a member of Newsday's editorial board.