S1: Hewitt next listener, Mary Harris here, before we get started, I wanted to give a quick shout to our newest listeners. There have been a whole bunch of you over the last few weeks. We’re grateful to have you. And if you like what you’re hearing, please consider subscribing. You can do that wherever you listen and then you can leave us a review. Tell us what you think. All right. Onto the show. Slate’s Jordan Weissmann, he honestly just didn’t think there was going to be bipartisan infrastructure legislation in Washington.
S2: I went off on a vacation and the last thing I tweeted was, I just hope that by the time I’m back, they’ve given up this pointless kabuki and moved on to passing a partisan bill. So I’m putting this on the record that I was a doubter.
S1: Jordan had good reason to be doubtful, negotiations had been going on for weeks. There are a lot of stops and starts, including a moment back in June when President Biden announced there was a deal which then got scuttled. Then this weekend, there it was, 2700 pages of legalese about roads and bridges with senators from both sides of the aisle singing the bill’s praises.
S3: I want to congratulate the members of the bipartisan group for their efforts. We haven’t done a large bipartisan bill of this nature in a long time.
S1: I mean, the Senate seemed really proud of itself the other day when they were introducing this bill.
S3: Neither side got everything we wanted. There are a bunch of things in this bill I don’t like. I’d take out there things in this bill I know my Democrat friends don’t like it would take up with it.
S4: But the process that has gotten us here this evening is one that, well, hard and arduous. As a senator from Arizona has noted, this is what we come here to do.
S5: It’s not easy. They call it a deliberate body. This is truly what deliberation is about to come to an agreement. And it takes an awful lot of time, a lot of patience, a lot of effort.
S1: And it was just like shout outs all around, big smiles, like it felt like a party in their
S2: right, because it’s it’s sort of like if the U.S. men’s gymnastics team suddenly won a gold medal out of nowhere or even like even like a silver. Right. Like it is like no one
S1: is thinking of those guys.
S2: There was a lot there were a lot of naysayers. Right. I mean, I count myself among the naysayers. Like, you know, this is not done, even if it passes the Senate, it will be a while before this becomes law and there are many hurdles along the way. But it’s possible it’s possible that Joe Biden will actually get a fairly substantial bipartisan, you know, Bill, you know, in, you know, to his name, in fact, he might he might get two of them.
S1: Today on the show, how to make an infrastructure bill in Washington, turns out you may have to make more than one of them. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. The people who made this week’s bill happen are Senator Kirsten Sinema, the Democrat from Arizona, and Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio. Both consider themselves moderates, compromisers. That’s clear from the text of their legislation, which still has a few hurdles to get over before heading to the president’s desk. Can we talk about what’s in the bill? Yeah, like Rob Portman, the Republican senator who’s the main negotiator, he summed it up really concisely,
S3: 555 billion dollars, no new taxes, core infrastructure only. And it’s great for the American people.
S1: And I was like, OK, boom. Like, that’s those are the big three and those are the big three that the Republicans wanted. So what exactly is this bill paying for?
S2: I mean, Portmans not wrong for the most part, right? That’s a pretty good assessment. You know, again, yeah, it is accurately 550 billion dollars of new spending. About one hundred and ten billion of that is going to be things, roads, bridges, tunnels, things that we think of as, you know, the core of infrastructure. There’s 66 billion for rail. There’s, you know, 40 billion for public transit. Thirty nine billion. I think there’s more for airports, ports. There’s 15 billion for electric vehicles, which is, you know, less than Joe Biden’s initial proposal, which is closer to 100 billion, I believe, 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 what lead pipes. And there’s a lot of money going to sort of 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 dealing with flooding and dealing with wildfire.
S1: You’ve made the point that, you know, some folks have looked at this bipartisan legislation and underlined the fact that a lot of things have shrunk from Joe Biden’s initial request for money, but that actually some of the funding that looks like it may be disappeared from this bill is actually stuffed into other pieces of legislation. And 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?
S2: Joe Biden came out the gate with three big proposals. There was this American rescue plan which was discovered response. There is the American jobs plan, which was sort of his mostly hard infrastructure, but also things like elder care plan,
S1: what they were calling human infrastructure.
S2: Human infrastructure. Right. And then there was the American families plan, which was, you know, things like child care, pre-K, you know, extending the child tax credit, somewhat more Obamacare subsidies, the kind of improvements to America’s welfare state and family policy. So those were the three kind of, you know, pillars of Biden’s agenda. And he’s sort of breaking off pieces of those pillars and mixing and matching them. Right. So what we’re getting in this bill, the bipartisan one, is sort of the core of the infrastructure plan. Really, what we think of as the mostly is the traditional hard infrastructure. You know, again, the roads and bridges and waterways and tunnels and trains, etc., etc.
S1: A lot of what’s been stripped out of this infrastructure bill, stuff like raising wages for home health care workers or investing in public housing and community centers, it could get jammed through anyway. That’s if all 50 Democrats stick together and use the budget reconciliation process. Jordan calls this a multitrack approach.
S2: 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. You know, the health care stuff. 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, which is, you know, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. It was sort of known as the China bill. But also some people call it for a while. It was the Endless Frontier Act. And this was this big science and industrial policy funding bill that also kind of borrowed some ideas, some from Biden and some from other places. And that’s like two hundred and fifty billion dollars in spending on things like, you know, semiconductor plants and more National Science Foundation funding and more funding for national labs.
S1: And that garnered Republican support because everyone wants to beat up on China at this point.
S2: Yeah. Ever wants to be up and running. And actually there’s some zone of agreement on things like basic research right there. That does seem to be another place where they’re there. There’s a group of Republicans who are OK with that’s that as a function of government and are kind of OK with deficit financing it. I guess what’s a little bit frustrating watching this is we’re actually seeing these zone of agreements where reasonable people can get together and and make progress. It’s just that it’s happening on the backdrop of this all encompassing culture war between the Democratic and Republican parties. That’s leading to the degradation of things like voting rights and, you know, creating this specter about what’s going to happen in the next election. And if you know what crazy things GOP controlled states might do and real fears about what could actually happen to the integrity of the electoral process, you know, the culture war is what’s creating these just massive existential fears about the future of the country and also the fact that Republicans still don’t seem to be willing to go far, even close to far enough on on climate change. However, those are sort of the big overriding problems. And then yet you can kind of see in these bipartisan bills what a sort of functioning moderate government might look like if there weren’t these other bigger issues.
S1: It’s striking to me, listening to you and thinking about this strategy of having all these bills where you kind of stuff in pieces of what you want to get done, how much this is a former senator’s strategy, you know. I mean, like listening to you talk, I feel like this is so Joe Biden to operate in this way and to sort of get your priorities into a bunch of different bills and have one be really bipartisan. It just seems like it’s a function of the fact of where he came from.
S2: Yeah, I think there’s some of that, you know, the White House definitely was. Hands on legislating and so, yeah, I think you do see a little bit of the former senator’s touch, I’m willing to admit that it looks like I will probably be proven wrong about whether anything can get done on a bipartisan basis. But the question is really if the big, most important things can still get done on a bipartisan basis. And even Biden seems to have sort of tacitly admitted that that’s not possible with this two track solution, where things like the really major investments in climate are going to be done entirely, if at all, by through Democratic votes.
S1: Can we talk about how this infrastructure is going to be paid for? Theoretically, because I thought that taxes were how we were going to pay for infrastructure, we were going to tax the rich, but that is not part of this bipartisan legislation purposefully. So where’s the money coming from?
S2: So, you know, we’re not taxing the rich, first off, which is I think that’s good personally. Really? Yeah, because it means the more pay for is left over the Democrats can use for their other bills.
S1: Oh, like we can tax the rich later.
S2: Yeah. For the other for the stuff in the reconciliation bill, there are a lot of reasons why that’s actually helpful. Basically, if you do something in a reconciliation bill, permanent spending has to be paid for on a permanent basis, sort of the rule of thumb. So the extra rich taxing capacity we have rich people taxing capacity we have is good. It means that we can make more programs that Biden wants to pass permanent. So I think that’s actually good. But some Republicans did not want to raise taxes. So what did they agree to do? Well, they find, you know, a bunch of small pots of money, like reinstating super fund fees. They roll back a prescription drug rule that the Trump administration was going to put in place and was going to cost Medicare some money delayed that that saved some cash. And then they just say, like, we’re going to repurpose 200 billion or so, you know, dollars in covid relief funds that weren’t used,
S1: which I didn’t know that there was like a few hundred billion sitting around unused.
S2: Basically, they’re doing is they’re saying, well, we didn’t spend this money. We thought we are going to spend on covid. Right. Like, so it’s some of the unemployment funds that red states didn’t use because they cut off benefits earlier. And, you know, some of the tax credits that just ended up happening to cost less than anticipated, they’re saying, well, we didn’t spend that there, so we’re going to spend it on infrastructure instead. And they’re counting that as as savings. You know, it’s like this. It’s like it’s like you said, you’re planning to go out to dinner, right? Like you are going to go blow like three hundred dollars on a birthday night dinner out somewhere, like just, you know, going all out. And then instead you’re like, well, somehow dinner only cost 150. And so the next day you say, well, I saved that money, so I’m going to I’m going to use that money I saved yesterday to cover the new shoes I’m going to buy tomorrow. And it’s like, well, you didn’t actually save save.
S1: Yeah, yeah.
S2: You’re you’re just spending the money they’re saving.
S1: And that’s what that is. Yes. Saving.
S2: Right. That’s like sort of that’s sort of what Washington is doing a little bit here. But I’m all for it.
S1: Well, it was a weird split screen for me to have them talking about this as the eviction moratorium expired. Yeah, because so many people were basically saying we never got our money from, you know, we were supposed to get from the feds that was going to cover our rent, were being evicted. And now the federal government’s like, we’ll be taking back all of the money that was unspent and repurposing it, which OK, but it’s
S2: it’s not it’s not coming from that, thankfully. OK, it’s it’s money that like, you know, if I if I remember one of the tax, it was like the employee retention tax credit cost less, for instance, than they thought it was going to do. So that money was available stuff along those lines. You know, I I talked to another aide on the Hill who basically said to me that the reason Republicans were able to go along with this in the end when they never really tried to do infrastructure at Donald Trump, was that they have sort of tacitly embraced the idea of deficit spending or deficit financing, even if even if there’s a wink wink involved in a way that they just kind of weren’t willing to do. Prie covid, huh?
S1: Because it used to be a real pillar of Republicanism, like we’re not going to
S2: deficit spend on infrastructure, but we’ll deficit spend on tax cuts. Sort of that was where the Republican Party was at, whereas now it’s like, OK, there’s a little bit more room to fudge on this stuff. It all I think it also helps that, again, a lot of these guys just realize they need the spending at this point to fix up their home states.
S1: When we come back, will the Senate be able to pull off this multitracked scheme? Even before this week’s bipartisan bill moved to the Senate floor, attention had started to shift because it’s still a little unclear if the moderate Democrats who negotiated so hard over infrastructure are going to play ball with a reconciliation bill the rest of their party says they need next. The price tag for that legislation, it could go as high as three point five dollars trillion dollars. Senator Sinema and Manchin have already signaled that that’s a little rich for their blood. This is Joe Manchin just this weekend.
S3: Can you guarantee to see that a reconciliation package will pass the Senate? Because her concern is that this infrastructure bill might be bipartisan, but it’s scaled back so much it’s not as bold as it should be and what the country needs. Can you guarantee her that the reconciliation package will pass
S5: and really guarantee anybody? You know, and I have not guaranteed anybody on any of these pieces of legislation. We would like to do more. Yeah, you can do what you can pay for. This is pay for our infrastructure bills all paid for. We don’t have a debt that we’re going to incur more debt and throwing onto it. And on the other, as far as the reconciliation bill should be looked at the same.
S1: So let’s talk about what happens now, because I have to confess that I don’t understand the politics of what’s about to go down. Like it feels like we have a bunch of bills that a bunch of different stages of development. And I don’t know how this gestational period is going to go. So lay out the timeline for me, because there’s a clock like these senators, technically, they’re supposed to leave August 9th. So they got like a week to do this.
S2: Yeah, I mean, we’ve got this kind of big ol legislative rumpus going on, right? Yeah. So Schumer wants to pass this bill by next week and then he wants to move on and pass the three point five trillion dollar budget resolution, which is sort of that’s like the prelude to the reconciliation package.
S1: That’s not even the reconciliation package.
S2: No. Before you can pass a reconciliation package, you have to pass a budget resolution. And the budget resolution does some technical things, basically says the maximum you’re going to spend. And it says like what committees the money is going to go to.
S1: So I was thinking there were like twin bills. But you’re telling me is like, no, no, no. The hard work the legislative branch is pregnant with quadruplets. Like to get all these bills through.
S2: So, yeah, it’s a it’s an elaborate it’s an elaborate ritual of the U.S. Senate. So the the the budget resolution has to be passed first. And then once they once both houses of Congress approved the budget resolution, then they actually start working on like what really will be in the bill. And that’s when you’re going to see the like, hard core internecine Democratic infighting. Just just rev up where you’re going to get you’re going to see the fight over how much they want to spend in the end, you know, whatever below or at that three point five trillion dollars you’re going to see the fight is over. What they want to do on climate and child care and pre-K and health care and the specifics. And, you know, they’re kind of bills already lying around dealing with a lot of these things.
S1: But they’re going to be like pasting them together and trying to see if it makes sense.
S2: Yeah, they’re going to be they’re going to be scraping this thing together and then presumably in the fall. You know, after the August recess, when they will get that done and then at some point they will, if all goes according to plan with this two track strategy, they will send both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the three point five trillion dollar reconciliation bill and maybe some version of that innovation act all to Joe Biden’s
S1: desk at the same time,
S2: roughly. Yeah, that’s kind of the idea, because Nancy Pelosi says she doesn’t want to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill until she gets the, you know, three point five trillion dollar reconciliation bill because
S1: she’s got a rowdy progressive caucus. That’s like, yeah, this is like chump change.
S2: Yeah. They don’t they don’t trust cinema and they
S1: don’t trust outspoken about it, too.
S2: Yeah, I know there are like aosis Uden with feuding with you know, mentioned cinnamon on Twitter like it’s. Yeah. She’s I mean. Well so explain
S1: something to me though because this week we saw this kind of Kumbaya moment on the Senate floor. A lot of Republicans coming forward like shout out to my friend Mitch McConnell, we got this done. This is how the Senate is supposed to work. We’re doing it. We’re doing the thing right. So they’re really excited. But what you’re telling me is that this bill is kind of just like a little teeny extension of this ginormous other thing that will go to Biden’s desk. So if I’m them, like, what’s the point of negotiating on this bipartisan bill? If there’s just going to be something? I have no part of that I’m going to fundamentally disagree with. It’s going to be much more expensive.
S2: So I think there are a few things. One is that it is the way the Republicans felt like they got some say in the policy.
S1: So this train is going somewhere. We got to just get on at some point
S2: to some extent. Right. It’s all it’s how they get some say there seems to be an agreement that issues that are dealt with in this bipartisan bill are probably not going to get reopened in the reconciliation bill. So it seems unlikely that, for instance, that Joe Biden is going to stuff or that the Democrats are going to stuff a bunch more electric car funding, for instance, into the reconciliation bill, that this is kind of where it gets it gets handled in the bipartisan one so
S1: they can sort of like stop the conversation on some things by getting it done in the bipartisan bill. And just like we dealt with that so.
S2: Right. They can get there. They can leave their mark. And I think other piece of it, they can show for the ones who are in more moderate states, they can show, listen, we work with Joe Biden. We did. You know, we’re not these you know, we are not this insane insurrectionist party. We are reasonable people. When we need to be there is the fact that they want to keep Manchin and cinema kind of in the fold. Right. Like you need to show some good faith that you can come to an accord on a bipartisan agreement if you want your two Democratic partners who are keeping the filibuster alive to continue saying, yes, we want to keep making bipartisan deals and we don’t want to kill the filibuster, like you said, you have to keep them happy and you have to make them not look like idiots. So there’s that. You know, Mitch McConnell seems to be backing this. And people speculated like, why the Grim Reaper? You know, Doctor No. Is is backing this bill when he said he just wants to basically make Biden a one term president. And there’s some sort of nefarious ideas that, you know, McConnell thinks that if this passes, Democrats might just tear themselves apart over the reconciliation package and the whole thing will fail like right lite. He’s kind of thrown a Hail Mary here. But I’ve also, you know, some people suggest that he just sees that enough of his party wants to do this, that it’s not such a big deal politically that it’s going to make Joe Biden, you know, an electoral titan, that there’s enough you know, that, you know, there’s enough of an upside for everybody and for for the Republican Party to just go along with it. And this is
S1: not a big deal to him. But President Trump is already throwing his weight around, saying this is a disaster. You’re giving Biden a win.
S2: Yeah, I mean, Trump looks like an idiot, right? Because, again, he he spent his entire presidency saying infrastructure, weak infrastructure, weak infrastructure, weak. And it never happened. You know, if you talk to people he just never had with anybody, even on the Republican Party side, considered a workable infrastructure bill, which is kind of like giant privatization scheme, that he was going to, like, invest 200 billion dollars. And that was going to lead to a trillion dollars of investment just through the magic of leverage. And no one really believed in it. You know, there was there are all sorts of reasons why I just never you know, and also Trump was lazy, right? Like he didn’t like actually he didn’t like negotiating anything himself. So it just never you know, there were all sorts of reasons. It never came together for him. But, you know, it’s very possible that Joe Biden is going to deliver what Trump only promised. And so obviously he’s upset.
S1: So it seems like we’re at this kind of interstitial moment where once again, this bipartisan group is saying, you know, we’re we’re working together, we’re getting this done. We’re getting this through to the next level. But the real timeline. We’re looking at the fall for all of this stuff to actually be finished, signed.
S2: Complete, hopefully, yeah, that’s certainly that’s the idea.
S1: You sound like you’re still not fully convinced this is going to happen.
S2: You never know, right, like, I just I’m sort of a big believer in the idea that, like, you know, fate makes a mockery of all our best laid plans. I’m a little bit skittish. It could become more of an intra democratic fight and it might become more of a fight of what goes in that other bill. Right. What what a company’s infrastructure.
S1: So the fight is about to change.
S2: It’s going to change. It’s going to change in character. But it is a hopeful sign. The cooperation is at least possible in some places.
S1: Jordan Weissmann, always a pleasure, thank you.
S2: Thanks for having me on there. It was a great conversation.
S1: Jordan Weissmann is Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent. And that is the show What Next is produced by Carmel Delshad Davis Land, Mary Wilson Elena Schwartz and Danielle Hewitt. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can track me down on Twitter, say hi, I’m at Mary’s Desk. Meanwhile, I’ll be right here in this feed tomorrow.
S2: I’m sorry, I’m sorry for to all of your listeners, may haven’t already just Jordan Jesus, he’s back on the show first,
S1: but yeah, they’re just hoping you sing again at the end. Anyway, go ahead.
S2: Don’t don’t tempt me.