The Bipartisan Infrastructure Tightrope
Some Republicans hope—and progressive Democrats suspect—that a bipartisan infrastructure deal will make it harder for Democrats to stay united on a bigger, party-line package.
Happy Friday! Let’s get to the news.
Another Hurdle Cleared in Senate Infrastructure Deal
In the fairy tale, the boy who cried wolf eventually got eaten after one too many false alarms. But after weeks of negotiations and many false starts, the senators who cried “infrastructure deal!” are on track to have a happier ending.
“We have reached agreement on the major issues,” Sen. Rob Portman told reporters outside of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office on Wednesday. He was flanked by the other key Republicans who have worked on the bill—Sens. Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney.
The Democratic side, helmed by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, also included Sens. Joe Manchin, Jeanne Shaheen, Mark Warner, and Jon Tester. The group—referred to as the “G-10” senators on the Hill—worked tirelessly to come to a deal in recent weeks, sometimes working past midnight.
“The acrimony that has besieged Washington the last few years was not there,” a GOP aide familiar with the process told The Dispatch. “It was legislating as it’s intended to work.”
Critics of the bill remain among the Senate GOP, with some calling the process rushed and saying they wanted to see the full text of the bill before they could vote on it.
The bill has also picked up another significant opponent: Former president Donald Trump, who spent some time this week armchair quarterbacking the GOP opposition from his home in Florida.
The bill “is a loser for the USA, a terrible deal, and makes the Republicans look weak, foolish, and dumb,” Trump said in a Wednesday statement. “It shouldn’t be done.”
Cassidy obliquely pushed back on that line of reasoning Wednesday: “I am amazed that there’s some who oppose this just because they think that if you ever get anything done, somehow it’s a sign of weakness.”
Despite this opposition, the bill survived an early test in the Senate. On Wednesday night, senators voted 67-32 in favor of advancing the bill to the next stage of debate. While only 60 votes were needed, 17 Republicans voted with Democrats to invoke cloture. We explained how cloture works in Thursday’s TMD:
The vote that occurred last night is what’s called a “cloture” vote. This procedural vote is simply a way to move the bill along in the Senate process. Just because a senator voted for cloture does not mean they will vote to pass the bill when it comes up for final consideration. A “yes” vote last night means enough senators voted to move the bill to the next step in the process, which is bringing the bill to the floor for debate.
“The word in this town and all across this country from the naysayers is that bipartisanship is dead, that it doesn't work anymore, and that government is broken,” Sinema said at a press conference after the vote. “And we are here to say ‘No.’ It works. It takes time. It is hard. ... But we get it done.”
Because it has not been finalized, the actual text of the bill has yet to be made public. At the time this newsletter was published, Senate staffers were still working on the final text of the bill.
However, Politico obtained a copy of a detailed summary of the package from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It denotes the breakdown of some of the $550 billion in new spending which will occur over five years. The proposal grants $110 billion for “roads, bridges, and major projects,” $49 billion to “modernize transit,” and $65 billion for high-speed internet access, among other projects.
Crucially for Republicans concerned about the price tag, the bill would be paid for in a multitude of ways without raising taxes—a goal of Portman’s from the outset. The biggest chunk of money comes by way of repurposing over $200 billion of COVID relief spending. Other proposed pay-fors include getting back fraudulent and unused unemployment insurance payments and increasing in reporting of cryptocurrency transactions. A chunk of the funding will also come from an estimated 33 percent return on investment from the infrastructure projects funded by the bill.
Of course, the bill faces a long uphill road. Its future is uncertain in the Senate, let alone in the House of Representatives. While many senators told reporters in the halls of the Capitol that they are optimistic about its chances, just as many said that they had many unanswered questions about the infrastructure package they wanted addressed.
“I’m encouraged that our colleagues have gotten us this far, but the bill’s not ready, and we need to see the text and be given adequate time to read it,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of Senate leadership, said on the Senate floor before the vote.
Republicans hesitant about supporting the package say it may lead to more runaway government spending. They cite Democrats’ plans to turn around and pass a massive reconciliation package focused on “human infrastructure” which includes funding for climate change initiatives, free community college, childcare and more. These are all things Republicans, including the ones that negotiated this bipartisan infrastructure deal, oppose.
Sen. Tim Scott brought up this point last week in a press release: “My colleagues across the aisle are more concerned with rushing through this so they can focus on their $3.5 trillion tax and spending bill.”
The Republicans in the bipartisan group argue that this perspective has it backwards. By passing all of the hard infrastructure initiatives—roads, bridges, broadband access, etc.—in this bipartisan bill, the aide argued, the incentives for center-left Democrats like Manchin and Sinema to vote for a massive Democrats-only package will diminish.
“The hard right says we are making it easier to pass reconciliation,” the aide said. “But Dems were going to do that anyway. We are actually going to lower the overall price tag.”
At least in their public statements, those centrist Democrats are lending credence to that theory. Sinema told The Arizona Republic this week that while she supports many of the initiatives in the package, $3.5 trillion is too high of a sticker price: “While I will support beginning this process, I do not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion—and in the coming months, I will work in good faith to develop this legislation with my colleagues and the administration.”
Progressives, of course, are playing the pressure game from the other side: trying to lock down their reconciliation package before green-lighting the bipartisan bill. Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to insist she will not bring the bipartisan bill to the floor unless Senate Democrats first pass the larger “human infrastructure” bill.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, Democrat from New Jersey who co-chairs the 58-member, bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, seemed confident the bill will pass the House. Gottheimer said on MSNBC, “This will come to the House and there will be a vote. And it will pass. And I really believe at the end of the day when you have the largest infrastructure package in a century with the President behind it, and a bipartisan group in the Senate passing it, we’re going to pass it.”
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