Politics

The Senate Will Actually, Finally Pass an Infrastructure Bill This Week

Then Democrats get to tear one another apart for real.

Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer walk side by side in a hallway, both wearing masks
Are they discussing the most transformative bill in decades, or the Brooklyn Dodgers? Who is to say. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Jim Newell: Happy Monday, Jordan! Know that this Monday is not a particularly happy one among members of the United States Senate. They just spent the weekend in Washington processing the “hard” infrastructure deal negotiated primarily between Sens. Rob Portman, Kyrsten Sinema, and the White House. A healthy bipartisan majority of the Senate is ready to pass this sucker and move on with their lives. But because it’s the Senate, and it only takes one senator’s objection to slow everything down—in this case, freshman Sen. Bill Hagerty—the chamber is having to take various votes separated by mandatory 30-hour periods of nothing. It’s a drag. I saw Sen. Brian Schatz late Sunday afternoon exercising outdoors in the stupid D.C. heat. That dude could be on recess in Hawaii now, sipping tremendous island cocktails. Alas.

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As we wait for the Senate to wrap this up, which without a time agreement could come around 4 a.m. on Tuesday, what’s struck you watching the endgame? Are you surprised this deal is actually happening? Did you foresee the whole thing succumbing to whining by crypto nerds in the final hours?

Jordan Weissmann: Am I surprised this deal is actually happening? At this point, no. All sides have been telegraphing that they’re serious about passing it for weeks. Am I surprised that the last major hurdle was a seemingly tangential issue with little to no bearing on the main thrust of the bill? Again, no. That happens all the time in Washington. With Obamacare, one of the final major hurdles was abortion coverage and the Stupak amendment. Joe Manchin held up the American Rescue Plan this year partly over taxes on unemployment insurance.

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But am I a little rattled after witnessing the emergence of a potentially powerful lobbying force in Washington that somehow includes the Winklevoss twins? Yes, Jim, that took me a bit off guard.

You could argue that the crypto industry lost this fight. Congress wants to crack down on tax evasion by bitcoin traders by subjecting exchanges like Coinbase to the same reporting requirements the rest of finance has to deal with. The crypto people are worried that the rules might sweep up players like miners who literally can’t access the information necessary to abide by them. At the moment, the language lobbyists were pushing back against looks like it will end up in the bill unchanged for baroque procedural reasons, and the fight will probably go on in the regulatory rule-making process. But what we ultimately learned is that there is a bipartisan laser-eyes caucus in the Senate, which includes Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, one of the most powerful Democrats in the chamber. I think anybody who was hoping that maybe Congress would just snuff crypto entirely out of existence at some point needs to realize that absolutely is not going to happen.

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Jim: That’s a shame. I would love to stop hearing about it forever.

Jordan: The future is a doge licking a human face forever, Jim.

Here’s what I’m a little curious about, so far as infrastructure goes: As this bill has gotten closer to passage, more and more Republicans have jumped on it. One notable exception is Todd Young, who is now officially opposed, even though up until now he’s quietly been one of the most enthusiastic Republicans when it comes to bipartisan dealmaking.

Why are some conservatives hopping on this train at the last minute, while others are hopping off?

Jim: Well, the stated cause for the opposition of some once-interested senators—specifically Young and Jerry Moran—is the CBO score of the bill, which showed it increasing the debt by $256 billion. Why wasn’t there a bigger rebellion over that score? Because almost everyone who was for the bill had baked that score in and quickly posted their pre-written statements about how the bill really is fully offset, but CBO doesn’t score all of the pay-fors in its accounting. The number wasn’t a surprise.

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What do Moran and Young have in common, though, among the 10 to 12 Republicans who were in the group that negotiated the bill? They’re both up for reelection in 2022 in red states.

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Breaking it down this way does a relatively neat job of explaining the Republican votes here. The exact number is in flux vote to vote, but about 20 Senate Republicans support the deal, and about half of those just won reelection in 2020. Three others are retiring at the end of this Congress, while Chuck Grassley is still undecided about running. Four others aren’t up until 2024. The senator in the most 2022 danger who is voting for it is Lisa Murkowski, but Alaska loves its infrastructure spending.

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So it seems like senators who can get away with supporting this deal are gravitating toward it, while those who are nervous about primary challenges (or attacks from Trump) for “enabling” Democrats’ ensuing reconciliation bill are drifting away.

Jordan: Got it. The ship-jumpers don’t want Trump showing up in their states to rant and rave at primary voters about how they gave Joe Biden a “big, beautiful win.” So they have to pretend that they now oppose it over a budget score everyone knew was coming while it passes anyway with an overwhelming Senate majority.

Before we move on to the genuinely massive, potentially historic bill Democrats are about to start ripping each other to shreds over, I want to dwell for one more second on “hard” infrastructure and what it all means for Joe Biden’s theory of bipartisanship.

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Between this and the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act—that would be the bill nobody paid attention to earlier this year that’s designed to subsidize the semiconductor industry and help the U.S. beat China at big capital-S Science—it looks like solid bipartisan Senate majorities are going to pass approximately $800 billion of new spending, some of which is even devoted to combating climate change.

My take on this was that we’re seeing the rule of Boring Congress play out—that it is in fact possible for the two parties to cooperate on issues that are so inherently dull and generally inoffensive to your typical primary voter that it’s more or less impossible to generate serious polarization over them. Getting people mad about highways and the electric grid is like trying to make a magnet out of aluminum.

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Do you think that’s right, or is there something else going on?

Jim: I think it’s right that neither TAKING ON CHINA WITH SCIENCE! nor traditional surface transportation is likely to engender popular partisan resistance the way changes to health care, immigration, gun laws, and so forth are. It is a bit odd, though, that these two are pitched as examples of how the Senate can still work in a bipartisan fashion rather than the exceptions that prove the rule. You can think “the infrastructure bill shows Congress works!” … or you can think “oh, Jesus, if it was that hard to pass a bill fixing rickety bridges from the 1870s patched together by cardboard, what else can they do?” I don’t know what the legislative appetite will be like after this ostensibly low-hanging fruit is gone.

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My rule of thumb for whether a big bill like this—or a government funding bill, or a CARES Act, etc.— passes is: Does it need to pass? And I think that question guided this process. Democrats needed a significant bipartisan bill to get moderates on board for reconciliation. Republicans needed to offer something in good faith to those moderates, like Sinema and Manchin, who were under tremendous pressure to kill the filibuster, and they also believe it will limit moderates’ appetite on the reconciliation bill. Failure wasn’t an acceptable option for either side.

Jordan: Speaking of health care, immigration, and so forth …

Jim: It’s party time!

Jordan: It’s finally here. The $3.5 trillion big tuna. The Bernie Sanders omakase. The reconciliation bill.

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Jim: We do need a better descriptor for the most ambitious bill of my lifetime than “the reconciliation bill.”

Jordan: The big tuna isn’t doing it for you?

Jim: No, that was an endorsement. For the rest of this chat, at least, we shall only refer to it as “the big tuna.”

Jordan: Chuck Schumer wants all the toro on the menu.

Anyway, compared with the infrastructure bill, this is going to be the genuinely hard part for Democrats. They’re taking their actual stab at history. The budget resolution they’ve produced creates space for pre-K, child care, paid leave, a lower Medicare age, a permanent expansion of Obamacare, and real, big-time climate spending. SALT cap relief for the burghers of Essex County, New Jersey.

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And in order to do it, they’ll need to raise taxes on a lot more than just some crypto millionaires. I mean, they’re talking about paying for it by reforming the prescription drug market! That, on its own, would be a massive endeavor, and they’re treating it as a pay-for in a larger bill. Democrats are getting ready to gore lots and lots of oxes!

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So do you think they have any chance of making half this to-do list happen?

Jim: So first, a note on the process. To get to a reconciliation bill—a budget process that allows the Senate majority to bypass the filibuster and pass a bill with 50 votes—Congress first has to pass a budget resolution, which sets the overall cost and parameters for reconciliation and delegates various committees to come up with their own pieces of the puzzle. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Budget Committee chairman, released that Monday, and the Senate will take it up immediately after they’re done with the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The actual reconciliation bill will be written and passed later this fall.

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There will be bills within bills within bills in the final product, tunas within tunas within tunas. The Judiciary Committee, for example, is given $107 billion to write an immigration reform bill. HELP Committee? You all go ahead and write historic legislation to create universal pre-K, free community college, and child care. The energy and environment committee can write a li’l bill solving climate change.

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Zoom out a layer, though, and the budget resolution really reads to me as creating two main bills. We’ve talked about the overall $3.5 trillion price. The way that’s broken down, though, is that the Finance Committee gets to write one $1.75 trillion bill that has to be fully paid for, while the rest of the committees with marching orders get to write another $1.75 trillion bill that can be deficit-financed. So while Democrats claim that they will fully pay for the $3.5 trillion investment, they’re not tying their own hands here and requiring that in the blueprint.

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There are some things that may not make it past the parliamentarian. A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, for example, may be viewed as having “merely incidental” budget effects, which wouldn’t comport with reconciliation rules. But the biggest determinant on the cost will just be the politics of what moderates are willing to stomach. Both Manchin and Sinema have said they’re not voting for a $3.5 trillion bill, and have issues with certain policies too. The highest number that they’re willing to vote for will be the final cost of the bill.

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Jordan: I genuinely appreciate that Democrats are leaving open the option to judiciously take advantage of budget gimmicks. The party seems to have internalized the idea that it’s OK to mostly deficit-finance big, one-time expenditures (say, climate spending), which is encouraging.

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But do we think the House moderates are going to be a potential roadblock at all? Are they going to stand in the way if they think there’s really too much tuna? Or can they safely be ignored? They’ve been piping up about the deficit and inflation lately, but I can’t help but think that, in the end, they’ll back whatever Manchin and Sinema back.

Jim: I think if it’s OK with Manchin and Sinema, it will be OK with them. They all talk to one another. But I don’t think House passage will be the usual Pelosi-Hoyer-Clyburn stress-free, conveyor belt operation, and they’ll have to fight to get the votes on both the budget resolution and the final big tuna.

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It’s going to be tricky for Pelosi moving forward managing the wings of her party. So far, she’s sided with progressives who say: We’re not going to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate has sent over the yellowfin platter. But now, House moderates are asking for the opposite, that Pelosi bring up the bipartisan bill before anything else. What House moderates have not said publicly—so far, at least—is: We will not vote for the budget resolution until we pass the bipartisan bill. If they don’t draw that line, then they’re probably not too hard of a roadblock.

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Jordan: So this is the piece of legislation that’s going to make or break all those Biden/FDR comparisons. Let’s benchmark it now: Do you think Democrats will pull it off? And if so, do you think the final size will be over or under, say, $2.5 trillion?

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Jim: I think Democrats will pass something, because this is their last chance to move major priorities with a Democratic trifecta for another … let’s see … [consults Senate’s structural disadvantages for Democrats] … another infinity years.

That is a very challenging over/under you set! On the one hand, if Democrats give themselves $3.5 trillion to work with, you kinda expect them to find a way to spend $3.5 trillion. On the other, lobbyists are going to tear this to pieces—as you mentioned, Democrats are mounting a direct existential assault on PHARMA!!!—and Joe Manchin is probably sitting on his houseboat thinking, $1.6 trillion sounds like a fine number.

I’ll take the under and say $2.1 trillion. It probably would still be the most ambitious bill of my lifetime, and yet the complaining from progressives will be deafening after Democrats raised such high expectations.

What do you think?

Jordan: I’m also cautiously optimistic that Democrats will pull this off, though undoubtedly there will be maddening structural concessions in these programs just so that Kyrsten Sinema feels that little frisson of joy she gets whenever progressives yell at her on Twitter. And I’m taking the under, too: $2.4 trillion, because Captain Manchin will obviously enjoy being able to say, “I shaved more than $1 trillion from Bernie’s crazy plan.” He gets to own the libs. Biden can still make his New Deal comparisons in his signing speech. Everyone leaves happy. Until they get gerrymandered out of their House majority in 2022, anyway.

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