Politics

Are Democrats Falling Into a Republican Trap on Biden’s Biggest Priority?

A narrow bipartisan infrastructure deal could leave no room for the broad agenda.

Chuck Schumer makes two fists as he speaks at a podium surrounded by reporters
Senate Democratic leaders speak to reporters following a luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

For a hot minute early in discussions over President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief package this winter, some Democrats suggested it be split up: Democrats could get a quick bipartisan “win” by passing a small package of popular items like vaccine distribution money and direct checks, and then pursue the rest of their relief plans through the party-line budget reconciliation process. Instead, Democrats chose to keep it all packaged together, and moved everything—from vaccine money and checks to enhanced unemployment insurance, state and local aid, fixes to Obamacare and pension funds, and a boosted child tax credit—through the party-line, $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

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One concern driving the decision not to split it up was that passing the most popular items in bipartisan fashion might have made it more difficult, later on, to pass the remainder of what they wanted through reconciliation, where Democrats had zero votes to spare.

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As Democrats decide how to move forward on infrastructure and the remainder of Biden’s spending agenda, they’re suddenly back at the same decision point. Pursuing, or even reaching, a bipartisan deal on traditional “hard” infrastructure, like fixing roads and bridges, has been seen as a necessary process to get centrists, like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, on board for a partisan reconciliation bill afterward. But now Senate liberals are raising concern—and Republicans are confirming their concern—that agreeing to a bipartisan deal might make it much harder to pass the remainder of Democrats’ agenda covering the “care economy” and climate change.

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“There can be only one deal,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Tuesday. “And that deal cannot leave behind child care, green energy, and changes in the tax code so that the rich and powerful pay their fair share. We have to have one deal. Not two. One.”

The opportunity to ink a bipartisan infrastructure deal—or threat of inking one, depending on how one looks at it—became much more real late last week, when a group of Senate Democratic and Republican negotiators “reached a bipartisan agreement on a realistic, compromise framework to modernize our nation’s infrastructure and energy technologies,” according to the group’s press release. The proposal would offer about $579 billion in new spending for physical infrastructure. It would be paid for through some combination of indexing the gas tax to inflation, creating a new miles-traveled fee for users of electric vehicles, improving tax enforcement, repurposing certain unused COVID relief funds, and creating public-private partnerships.

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Despite the group offering more than what many Republicans are comfortable spending—previous infrastructure negotiations with West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito stalled out at an offer of $300 billion in new money—Republicans aren’t revolting just yet. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pinned the odds of a bipartisan infrastructure deal at 50-50, and Minority Whip John Thune told reporters that “the stars are kind of lining up” for a deal.

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Few Republicans were worried that they might look like suckers if they were to give Democrats a bipartisan “win” and then watch as Democrats proceeded to secure the rest of their agenda through reconciliation anyway. Their relative openness is guided by another political suspicion: the belief that making a limited bipartisan deal would prevent Democrats from having the votes to get the rest of what they want through reconciliation.

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“You can make the argument, I think, that Democrats, if there’s a bipartisan deal on the infrastructure pieces, and all that’s left is voting for the tax increases and all the social spending,” Thune told reporters Monday, “that it would be awful hard to get some of those moderate Democrats to be for that.” There has, indeed, been plenty of griping among moderate Democrats about the tax increases Biden proposed to pay for his American Jobs and American Families plans.

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Judging by the way Senate liberals were lunging away from the bipartisan deal early this week, they don’t take this as mere Republican trolling. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said Monday evening he wouldn’t support the bipartisan deal, should it be finalized. Climate hawks like Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley held a press conference Tuesday warning negotiators not to drop climate out of the discussion, suggesting that “if there is no climate, there is no deal.” Others took aim at the pay-fors, questioning why they were even entertaining, say, raising user fees on working people when they could be taxing the wealthy and corporations.

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“All of them,” Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono said when asked which pay-fors she had problems with.

“This group seems to keep dressing up their efforts,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden told reporters Tuesday, to “disguise” the unacceptable, “which is that working people should pay more in taxes” while “megacorporations should get off without paying anything.”

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Wyden was concerned, too, about the idea of agreeing to a “hard” infrastructure deal and then pursuing the remainder of the agenda later.

“Put me down as skeptical of the concept that the other person gets everything they want now, and that, down the road, somehow, the issues you care about are addressed,” Wyden said. “Now, again, this is all a very fluid situation. But put me down as being skeptical. Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust but verify.’ After Mitch McConnell’s statements the last couple days, I think that’s certainly warranted.”

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There is a concept emerging for a way to thread this needle. Democrats who don’t like the bipartisan negotiations might go along with any deal the moderates reach if they had some sort of commitment from moderates that they would follow through on a reconciliation bill later.

“I see them as tied together,” Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey said. “I don’t think there’s going to be great fervor for a bipartisan deal unless we’re guaranteed that we’re going to have a big bill, or a second part.”

Hirono, despite disliking so much of the bipartisan infrastructure framework, similarly said that “if the support for this bipartisan infrastructure bill is tied to, and comes together with, the American Families Plan, to enable millions of women to go back to work, then that’s a way forward for me.”

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, hoping to keep the process moving on both “tracks,” as he’s put it, said Tuesday that Democrats would begin the budget process that allows for reconciliation and carve out space for priorities on climate and other elements of the Families Plan. Starting the process for a reconciliation bill, though, does not guarantee that an eventual reconciliation bill, containing issues on which many Democrats disagree, can get 50 out of 50 Democratic votes.

Progressives, like Hirono, want to be sure that the commitment from the moderate wing of the party to keep pressing ahead with the Democrat agenda is ironclad, and not just a handshake agreement.

“There has got to be more than the handshake thing,” Hirono said. “And we’ll see what that is.”

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