Moneybox

Why Biden Could Succeed Where Trump Failed on Infrastructure

Joe Biden sits at a desk and flashes two thumbs up as people stand behind him.
President Joe Biden gives two thumbs up during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on July 22. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

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It didn’t seem like there would be a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Negotiations had been going on for weeks, and there were lots of stops and starts, including a moment back in June when President Joe Biden announced a deal—which then got scuttled. But this weekend, there it was: 2,700 pages of legalese about roads and bridges, with senators from both sides of the aisle singing the bill’s praises. The people who made this week’s bill happen are Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, and Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio. Both consider themselves moderates and compromisers. And that’s clear from the text of their legislation, which still has a few hurdles to clear before heading to the president’s desk. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Jordan Weissmann, Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent, about how to make an infrastructure bill in Washington—and why we may end up with more than one. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: What exactly is this bill paying for?

Jordan Weissmann: It is about $550 billion of new spending. About $110 billion of that is going to be roads, bridges, tunnels, things that we think of as the core of infrastructure. There’s $66 billion for rail. There’s $40 billion for public transit. I think there’s more for airports. There’s $15 billion for electric vehicles, which is less than Joe Biden’s initial proposal but still a substantial investment in things like charging stations. There’s a whole bunch of money that’s going to electric power infrastructure like the grid and some new clean energy testing and water, things like clearing out lead pipes. And there’s a lot of money going to environmental resiliency. If you look through the summary of this bill, you’re going to find a lot of stuff about dealing with drought and flooding and wildfires.

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You’ve made the point that some folks have looked at this bipartisan legislation and underlined the fact that a lot of things have shrunk from Biden’s initial request, but actually some of the funding that looks like it may have disappeared from this bill is actually stuffed into other pieces of legislation. So the Democrats are kind of just trying to find places to squirrel away money in whatever bill they can get it in. Do you want to explain that a little bit?

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Biden came out the gate with three big proposals: There was the American Rescue Plan, which was economic recovery; there was the American Jobs Plan, for “human infrastructure”; and then there was the American Families Plan, which was things like child care, pre-K, extending the child tax credit, more Obamacare subsidies, improvements to America’s welfare state and family policy.

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Those were the three pillars of Biden’s agenda, nd he’s breaking off pieces of those pillars and mixing and matching them. So what we’re getting in this bill, the bipartisan one, is the core of the infrastructure plan, what we think of mostly as traditional, hard infrastructure: waterways and tunnels and trains, etc.

A lot of what has been stripped from this infrastructure bill—raising wages for home health care workers, investments in public housing and community centers—could get jammed through anyway. That is, if all 50 Democrats stick together and use the budget reconciliation process.

The real heavy lifting on climate is probably going to happen in the reconciliation bill. The family and child policy stuff, that’s all going to happen in the reconciliation bill. If we upgrade Medicare a little bit, that’s going to happen in the reconciliation bill. And then there’s this other piece of legislation that Chuck Schumer passed, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. This is a big science and industrial policy funding bill that also borrowed some ideas from Biden and some from other places. It comes to $250 billion in spending on things like semiconductor plants and more National Science Foundation funding and more funding for the national labs.

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I feel like this is so Joe Biden, to operate in this way and to get your priorities into a bunch of different bills and have one be really bipartisan.

The question is, really, if the big, most important things can still get done on a bipartisan basis. Even Biden seems to have tacitly admitted that that’s not possible with with his two-track solution, where things like really major investments in climate are going to be done entirely, if at all, through Democratic votes.

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I thought we were going to tax the rich to fund infrastructure, but that is not part of this bipartisan legislation.

No, we’re not taxing the rich here, which, I think that’s good personally.

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Really?

Yeah, because it means there are more pay-for options left over that Democrats can use for their other bills. If you do something in reconciliation, permanent spending has to be paid for on a permanent basis—that’s the rule of thumb. So the extra capacity Democrats have for taxing the rich is good: It means they can make more programs that Biden wants to pass permanent.

Let’s talk about what happens now. These senators are technically supposed to leave Aug. 9. So they’ve got like a week to do this.

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So Schumer wants to pass this bill by next week and then he wants to move on and pass the $3.5 trillion budget resolution, which is sort of the prelude to the reconciliation package. Before you can pass a reconciliation package, you have to pass a budget resolution. And the budget resolution does some technical things, like state the maximum you’re going to spend and what committees the money is going to go to. Then once both houses of Congress approve the budget resolution, then they actually start working on what really will be in the bill. That’s when you’re going to see the hardcore internecine Democratic infighting. They’re going to be scraping this thing together and then presumably in the fall, after the August recess, they will get that done and, if all goes according to plan with this two-track strategy, they will send both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill and maybe some version of that innovation act to Joe Biden’s desk.

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At the same time?

That’s the idea, because Nancy Pelosi says she doesn’t want to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill until she gets the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill.

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Explain something to me, though: This week we saw this moment on the Senate floor, like, “We got this done. This is how the Senate is supposed to work. We’re doing the thing right.” So they’re really excited. But what you’re telling me is that this bill is a teeny extension of this ginormous other thing that will go to Biden’s desk. So if I’m a Republican, what’s the point of negotiating on this bipartisan bill?

I think there are a few things. One is the way Republicans felt like they got some say in the policy, to some extent. There seems to be an agreement that the issues that are dealt with in this reconciliation bill are probably not going to get reopened in reconciliation.

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So Republicans can stop the conversation on some things by getting it done in a bipartisan bill.

Right, they can leave their mark. And I think another piece of it, they can show that they worked with Joe Biden: “We are not this insane insurrectionist party. We are reasonable people.” There is the fact that they want to keep Joe Manchin and Sinema in the fold: If you want your two Democratic partners who are keeping the filibuster alive to continue saying they want to keep making bipartisan deals an don’t want to kill the filibuster, you have to keep them happy and you have to make them not look like idiots. So there’s that.

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