In the matter of Nicole Malliotakis

Nicole Malliotakis is a Republican who represents New York’s 11th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. This is a swing district. Rep. Malliotakis won it in 2020, 53-47. She defeated a Democratic incumbent who, in turn, had defeated a Republican incumbent in 2018.

Malliotakis is one of the 13 Republicans who voted to pass the bipartisan infrastructure-plus bill last week. In the Senate, 19 Republicans — 38 percent of the GOP caucus — voted for it. Majority Leader McConnell was one of them. Others included Charles Grassley, Deb Fischer, James Risch, and Kevin Cramer — hardly “RINOs” under any fair-minded view.

Malliotakis is under fire for her vote. There’s nothing wrong with that. Members of Congress are, of course, accountable for how they vote.

But some of the attacks go too far. Overwrought conservatives are calling the Republican “yes” votes a “betrayal” and urging that each GOP representative who voted that way be challenged in primaries.

(Donald Trump reportedly railed against the 13 during the National Republican Congressional Committee dinner Monday. The reports I’ve seen don’t indicate what Trump said exactly, but knowing him, the attacks might well have been over-the-top. Malliotakis reportedly was visibly shaken.)

Malliotakis voted for the legislation because she considers it meritorious. She says it will benefit her district, which needs significant improvements in infrastructure and is not the only one.

It’s not a “betrayal” to vote for a bill of which, on balance, one approves. Indeed, it can be argued that, given the conclusion Malliotakis reached on the merits, it would have been a betrayal to vote against the bill. The loyalty of a member of Congress should be to his or conscience and constituents, not to a party or ideology.

Nor is it clear that “primarying” Malliotakis is a good idea. Is there another Republican in her district who is as likely to hold it for the GOP? Is that candidate as conservative, generally, as Malliotakis. Would that candidate have voted against infrastructure legislation favored by most voters in the district? Unless the answer to each of these questions is a confident “yes,” a challenge to Malliotakis from within her party makes no sense.

I’m not saying Malliotakis voted the way I would have on the infrastructure bill. She did not. But her vote was not a “betrayal” and primarying her is not necessarily a good idea.

I also question the premise that had Malliotakis voted against the bill, it would have been defeated. The legislation did not need her vote to pass the House.

Indeed, even if every GOP member had voted “no” (and how likely is that given that neither House Dems nor Senate Republicans were unanimous on the matter?) it’s not clear the bill would have been defeated. It’s more likely that enough Dems who voted against the measure because they knew Pelosi and Biden didn’t need their vote, would have provided the “yes” votes needed to pass the bill in a scenario where all Republicans stood together.

So it’s probably the case that all Malliotakis and the other GOP “renegades” did was enable the six far-left Dems to vote their conscience. That’s not a betrayal — not if Malliotakis and the others were themselves voting their conscience.

But suppose the infrastructure-plus bill had failed to pass the House. In all likelihood, the same $1.2 trillion would have been included in the reconciliation bill the Democrats are working on. And because Joe Manchin strongly favors spending the $1.2 trillion, he might have given the leftist Democrats some extra “Build Back Better” money to make sure the Dems reach a deal.

Passing the infrastructure-plus legislation on a standalone basis means that this money can’t be held hostage by the far-leftists who want to maximize reconciliation spending. Thus, if anything, passing the $1.2 trillion package might reduce the final price tag of the two bills combined. More likely, it will have no effect one way or the other.

I understand how tribal contemporary political battles have become. I also understand why, to a considerable degree, it has to be that way.

But I don’t understand the need to demonize members like Nicole Malliotakis for voting in favor of a measure she favors on the merits, that her constituents and the country as a whole favor, and that would have passed even without her vote.

One last point. Early in her career, Rep. Elise Stefanik, another New York congresswoman albeit from a different part of the state, was sometimes criticized for not invariably voting the conservative line. Stefanik, though, turned out to be a key player in opposing the impeachments of Donald Trump. She is now a hero among some conservatives.

I don’t know what Rep. Malliotakis’ trajectory will be if she remains in the House. But I don’t think conservatives should try to abort her career over one vote that was very likely inconsequential to the fate of money in question.

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