Progressives Wary of GOP Infrastructure Talks

Plus: Senate Republicans will vote on whether to keep their earmarks ban.

Good morning. There’s a lot going on at the Capitol this week, including a mark-up of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s China competition package scheduled for Wednesday. 

Senators are also continuing to discuss a potential bipartisan infrastructure package, as President Joe Biden prepares to release more details of his proposal in the coming days. 

Infrastructure Talks Proceed

Democrats are weighing the pros and cons of negotiating an infrastructure package with a group of Senate Republicans—with some progressives raising fears it could threaten President Biden’s more ambitious priorities.

Biden has proposed $2 trillion in spending, including money for roads and bridges as well as sweeping social investments. He’s expected to announce another component of the package soon, which will direct funding to universal prekindergarten and free community college, among other priorities. A group of 10 Senate Republicans has shown openness to the idea of a more modest traditional infrastructure package, with a price tag between $600 billion and $800 billion.

Democratic lawmakers haven’t rejected the idea outright: House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio said the ballpark sum is “not an insignificant amount of money.” And close Biden ally Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware has been in talks with the group of Republicans, including Sens. Mitt Romney and Shelley Moore Capito.

Coons has made the case for a two-pronged approach: Democrats could pass a more traditional infrastructure bill with some GOP support, followed by a separate, Democratic-only package advanced through the special budget reconciliation process that the party used for its sweeping coronavirus relief bill earlier this year.

“Let’s just say, notionally: The president and our caucus, we are trying to get $2 trillion worth of infrastructure and job investments moving ahead,” Delaware Democrat Sen. Chris Coons told reporters last week. “Why wouldn’t you do $800 billion of it in a bipartisan way and do the other $1.2 trillion Dems-only through reconciliation? Why wouldn’t you do that?”

The approach, proponents argue, would bolster Biden’s image after campaigning heavily on bipartisanship. And DeFazio has pointed out that it would allow Democrats to pass some items under regular order that could be blocked under the reconciliation rules.

But some Democrats—mostly progressives who want to move quickly on their priorities—are worried Republicans won’t negotiate in good faith or a deal will be too difficult to reach, wasting time. 

Some are also concerned about legislative dynamics. If many of the popular, traditional infrastructure items are included in the first bipartisan bill, it could make it more of a challenge for Democrats to pass a second bill solely focused on Biden’s liberal priorities. Moderate Democrats could decide the initial bipartisan bill was sufficient and withhold their support from the Democratic-only bill. With only 50 votes in the Senate, Democrats will have no room for disagreement on the second package if no Republicans support it. And because of their slim margin in the House, Democratic leaders in that chamber will also have space for only a couple of members to vote against the party line.

“If your question is should we split it, I’m not terribly comfortable with that, because—I’m open to persuasion here—but my instinct is the second tranche will be really hard to pass,” Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz told The Dispatch during Senate votes Monday night.

Schatz didn’t rule out the idea of bipartisanship, but he emphasized the need for action: “It’s always better to do something with 60 or 70 votes than with 51. That having been said, the main thing is to do it,” he said.

When asked about concerns that the two-pronged approach could endanger some of Biden’s agenda items, Coons said he’d be “very surprised” if that were the case. 

“The American Jobs Plan contains a lot of important and popular elements, and I disagree that it would be harder to pass it in the Senate with 50 Democrats,” Coons said. “But that’s the whole point of having conversations and negotiations.”

President Biden hosted a group of lawmakers at the White House Monday afternoon to discuss the infrastructure legislation. Each attendee—five House members and five senators—had previously served as governors or mayors. Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, managed the discussion. 

“There was general agreement that a major infrastructure program was overdue and that it should be paid for,” King wrote afterward. “The disagreements were what exactly should be in the package (although I was happy that broadband seemed to be on everybody’s list), and how exactly to pay for it. Although we’re a long way from a deal, both sides seemed genuinely interested in trying to get there and everyone realized compromise would be necessary to make it happen.”

Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who went to the meeting, said Biden was “mostly in listening mode” during the conversation.

“He wants to hear what Republicans have to say about infrastructure and both what we’d like to include and how to pay for it,” Romney told reporters last night.

Biden has proposed paying for some of the spending by hiking the corporate tax rate to 28 percent from 21 percent. Republicans are staunchly opposed to that plan. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has also pushed back on the idea. He has called for a smaller hike in corporate taxes, backing a rate of 25 percent rather than 28 percent.

Asked Monday if he would consider a modest hike in the corporate tax rate paired with other funding mechanisms, Romney advocated financing the infrastructure investments through user fees. “It’s too early to talk about how we would pay for it, but I think we should generally orient towards users, for instance on airports or ports the people using the airports, meaning the aircraft, and the ports, the ships that come in and out, those are the ones that should be paying,” he said.

The next step, senators say, is for the 10 Republicans involved in the infrastructure discussions to present a more detailed counteroffer to the White House. 

Senators will discuss Biden’s proposal in more detail Tuesday morning in an Appropriations Committee hearing. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge are set to testify. 

Senate GOP to Vote on Earmarks

Senate Republicans will vote on whether to uphold the conference’s ban on earmarks this Wednesday, a question that has sparked deep divisions among members.

Earmarks are spending that benefits a specific entity, state, or locality—often for projects such as transportation infrastructure. Earmarks differ from other forms of congressional spending in that they are allocated in a process “other than through a statutory or administrative formula or competitive award process,” according to the Congressional Research Service. Put simply: earmarks empower members to obtain funding for projects they think are important. Prior to 2011, members were able to request earmarks—but the practice enabled abuse and wasteful spending, such as the infamous “bridge to nowhere” proposed to connect a small Alaskan town with an airport on a nearby island. The project was ultimately abandoned after public scrutiny. 

Proponents of bringing back earmarks argue it will revive Congress’s power of the purse and allow members to exercise more influence as an institution. They also say it’s one of the most direct ways members can help their constituents, especially as rank-and-file members have been increasingly iced out of the legislative process in recent years.

House Democrats announced soon after the 2020 election that they would bring back the tool this year. Republicans who have called for lifting their party’s ban on earmarks have made the case that because Democrats are going to employ earmarks regardless of what Republicans decide, the GOP should not sit on the sidelines but should instead help determine where the earmarked funds go. 

But there is strong public opposition among Senate Republicans. In a letter Monday, 15 senators pledged to vote against repealing the Senate GOP Conference’s ban on earmarks. 

“We will not participate in an inherently wasteful spending practice that is prone to serious abuse,” they wrote. Led by Utah Sen. Mike Lee, the letter was also signed by Sens. John Cornyn, Ben Sasse, Mitt Romney, Pat Toomey, Cynthia Lummis, Mike Braun, Josh Hawley, Steve Daines, Rick Scott, Joni Ernst, Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul.

Still, the vote is likely to be conducted on a secret ballot, which could help its odds of passage. The deliberation comes a month after House Republicans opted to reinstate earmarks with a close vote. 

The return to earmarks will include some oversight rules, outlined by House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, to combat abuses of the system. Members will be capped at 10 earmark requests per fiscal year, although there is no guarantee all of those will be approved. Member requests and their justifications for each project will be publicly available. The total spending on earmarked funds will also be capped at 1 percent of discretionary spending. 

On the Floor

The Senate will vote on several of President Biden’s nominations this week, including Lisa Monaco for deputy attorney general later today. The chamber will also finish consideration of Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono’s legislation intended to combat anti-Asian hate crimes this week. Republicans had raised questions about the bill’s language—a bipartisan amendment cosponsored by Hirono and Maine Sen. Susan Collins is expected to resolve some of those concerns. 

The House, meanwhile, is set to vote Thursday on legislation to make Washington, D.C. a state. Democrats passed the bill in the House in the last Congress with a vote of 232-180, but it did not come up for consideration in the GOP-held Senate. The House has to vote on it again to send it to the Senate in the current session.

Key Hearings

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on voting rights on Tuesday morning.

  • The Senate Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday morning on President Biden’s infrastructure plan. Four of Biden’s cabinet officials will testify.

  • The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will hold a confirmation hearing Wednesday at 10 a.m. on former Sen. Bill Nelson’s nomination to lead NASA. 

  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday morning to consider the Strategic Competition Act, legislation seeking to counter the Chinese government’s influence. (You can read more about the bill here.)

  • The House Foreign Affairs Committee will mark up several bills on Wednesday, including the House version of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. The committee is expected to send the legislation to the full chamber for consideration. It passed the House in the last Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support, but it never received a vote in the Senate amid a lobbying effort from large corporations.

  • The Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism will hold a hearing Wednesday at 2 p.m. to examine U.S. policy on Yemen.

  • The Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing Thursday morning on U.S.-China relations and American trade competitiveness.

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Something Cool

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