On Thursday, a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators reached a bipartisan infrastructure deal, and President Joe Biden, flanked with grinning senators from both parties, blessed it at a White House ceremony. The celebration over this consummation of a long-sought, rarely realized infrastructure deal lasted all of a few hours. Starting Thursday afternoon, and escalating ever since, Senate Republicans have been complaining that Democrats screwed them.
The casus belli in this case is a pair of lines that Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi drew in the sand. Pelosi on Thursday said that the House would not vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal until the Senate had also sent over its legislative twin, a partisan reconciliation bill covering the rest of Democrats’ tax and spending agenda. That way, progressives could be sure that moderate Democrats in the Senate didn’t just quit legislating once they secured their bipartisan deal. Biden offered a second backstop, saying of the bipartisan bill that “if this is the only one that comes to me, I’m not signing it. It’s in tandem” with the reconciliation bill.
Republicans lost it.
“Less than two hours after publicly commending our colleagues and endorsing the bipartisan agreement,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday, “the president took the extraordinary step of threatening to veto it.” McConnell accused Biden of “caving” to the left, and added “that’s not the way to show you’re serious about getting a bipartisan outcome.” McConnell’s deputy in leadership, Minority Whip John Thune, tweeted that “Democrat leaders” were “holding bipartisanship hostage for partisanship. There’s time for them to get this back on track, but the ball is in their court.” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the former whip, tweeted that Biden’s strategy meant “no deal.”
The feeling is spreading. An angry South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who had been one of the 11 Senate Republicans who’d pledged to support the bipartisan infrastructure framework, appeared to withdraw his support. “If [Biden’s] gonna tie them together, he can forget it!” Graham told Politico. “I’m not doing that. That’s extortion! I’m not going to do that. The Dems are being told you can’t get your bipartisan work product passed unless you sign on to what the left wants, and I’m not playing that game.”
To be clear: No one is asking Graham to sign on to a reconciliation bill. That will be a bill that is designed to be hated by people like Graham. But, sure, it would be an awkward position to be in: If a bill Graham wants to kill is killed, he wouldn’t get his own bill signed either.
“Most Republicans could not have known that,” Graham said of Democrats’ strategy. “There’s no way. You look like a fucking idiot now.”
For months, Democrats have openly considered the idea of cutting a bipartisan deal with Republicans on traditional “hard” infrastructure and then pursuing everything else they want—“soft” infrastructure, but also their climate agenda, tax increases, and whatever else they try to toss in—through a party-line reconciliation bill. And for months, I’ve been on the lookout for an objection to that strategy from Republicans, on the grounds that it might make them look like chumps: They would be giving Democrats a bipartisan “win,” only to see Democrats still get whatever else they want in the next phase.
Nonetheless, this objection had been eerily missing.
“I think they’re separate,” Indiana Sen. Todd Young told reporters on June 14. “I of course don’t like the fact that what they fail to pass in a bipartisan infrastructure package they can end up ramming through regardless. But at least for those categories in which we can reach agreement, I feel, as a trustee of the taxpayers’ dollars, a responsibility to try and ensure those investments are made as responsibly and effectively as possible.”
“They can do that anyway, we can’t stop that,” South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds said the same day.
So what is it about this Biden-Pelosi announcement that finally turned them? They had known Democrats would pursue a partisan bill in addition to a bipartisan bill all along. Why does the sequencing of votes in the House of Representatives, or Joe Biden’s schedule for signing bills, now make them fear looking like, in the parlance of Lindsey Graham, “fucking idiots”?
Because it wiped out Republicans’ own strategy to maim the partisan bill.
Agreeing to a bipartisan bill wasn’t just Republicans’ means of securing improved infrastructure for their constituents. It was also their best way of trying to throw a wrench in Democrats’ partisan plans. Agreeing to some of the most broadly popular items on a bipartisan basis—improved roads, bridges, broadband, and so forth—would make it harder for Democrats to get 50 out of 50 votes for the more polarizing elements that remained.
“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 on June 14, “that it would be awful hard to get some of those moderate Democrats to be for that.” A bipartisan infrastructure deal would give Biden a bipartisan “win” he craved, sure. But it would also be Republicans’ best chance to block the elements of the Democratic agenda that they truly loathe.
Progressives caught onto this, of course, and have been insisting for the last couple of weeks on an “ironclad commitment” that their priorities wouldn’t be left behind. Pelosi, who rarely draws lines she’s not prepared to defend, delivered that commitment yesterday—the bipartisan bill doesn’t go through her chamber until the partisan one is also in her hands—and Biden backed her up. Republicans are now worried about looking like chumps because this Democratic maneuvering means they now, kinda-sorta, look like chumps.
So where does this go now?
Maybe negotiators can smooth things over, and keep just enough Republicans on board to pass the bipartisan deal. The optics for Republicans of filibustering their own deal because of concerns about vote sequencing aren’t ideal. And not all Republican negotiators are as mad as Graham. Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, for example, said Thursday that he “cannot control what Democrats do” and that “if I could, they wouldn’t be Democrats.”
Then, however, there are negotiators like Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who is reportedly threatening to jump ship unless Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin pledge to oppose a reconciliation bill entirely.
The bipartisan negotiators are scheduled to talk Friday afternoon.
Despite these frenzied efforts to save the deal, an instance of death-by-McConnell is coming into view. He can claim betrayal and keep the deal from reaching 60 votes. Democratic moderates, who wanted to give bipartisanship a chance, can say that they tried, and agree to pursue the whole deal, including “hard” infrastructure, through reconciliation. McConnell and Republicans can run against the Biden agenda cleanly in the midterms, having kept their fingerprints entirely off of it. The legend of the elusive bipartisan infrastructure deal can earn another chapter.