Voters oppose holding infrastructure hostage

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) addresses reporters after a key vote regarding bipartisan infrastructure legislation on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.
Greg Nash

Congressional Democrats appear to be making progress in working out their differences on the reconciliation bill. Progressives seem to have accepted that they must get the support of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) who want a lower price tag for the legislation that contains the core of the President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. Manchin, at least, is also signaling a willingness to move in progressives’ direction.

These recent developments set the stage for the considerable legislative drama that will play out over the coming weeks as significant features of the massive bill are negotiated. As a professor of negotiation at the Harvard Kennedy School, I taught students that the primary source of leverage is the strength of a negotiator’s alternatives. Recognizing the need for a credible alternative, progressives in the House have taken the infrastructure bill that passed the Senate on 69 to 30 vote hostage. By asserting the possibility that they would vote against the popular bipartisan bill, they have given themselves leverage they may not have otherwise had.

Progressives’ ability to negotiate favorable agreements on the substantial outstanding questions will continue to turn to a large extent on the credibility of their threat to vote against the infrastructure bill. An innovative, rigorous poll suggests that progressive Democrats should be careful not to overplay their hand here. It also indicates that Republicans who plan to vote against the infrastructure bill if the reconciliation bill does pass should be cautious.

This poll was different than most because more than 2,000 Americans spent at least 90 minutes reviewing a brief on infrastructure before weighing in. The brief provides extensive data about the nation’s infrastructure needs and makes the strongest case for each competing perspective. The participants are members of the CommonSense American program at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

After reviewing the brief, an overwhelming 89 percent agree that the “bipartisan infrastructure legislation should be considered on its own merits without being tied to the outcome of separate legislation with Democratic priorities.”

The results are particularly sobering for the progressive Democrats’ version of taking the infrastructure bill hostage. Even voters who are the base of the Democratic Party oppose congressional Democrats’ version of linkage. Participants who identify as liberal or extremely liberal Democrats disagree by 60 to 40 percent with “Democrats in Congress who say that they will not vote for bipartisan infrastructure legislation unless separate legislation with Democratic priorities also passes.”
Working class Americans would arguably benefit the most from the safety net expansions at the heart of the Democratic priorities legislation, including the provisions for childcare assistance, universal pre-K education, and Medicare expansion. Yet, 81 percent of those with household incomes of less than $40,000 disagree with Democratic linkage. Strong majorities of African Americans (61 percent) and Hispanics (84 percent) also oppose tying infrastructure to the reconciliation bill.

To be clear, although the brief described the elements of the Democratic reconciliation bill to provide context for the questions about linkage, we did not ask participants whether they supported or opposed that legislation. Presumably, most Democratic members of CommonSense American support the safety net expansions. But in the minds of these everyday Democrats, support does not justify using the infrastructure bill as leverage to get what they want on the reconciliation bill.

Congressional Republicans are attracting more support from their base for the GOP version of linkage. By 61 to 39 percent, extremely conservative and conservative Republicans agree with “Republicans in Congress who say that they will not vote for bipartisan infrastructure legislation unless separate legislation with Democratic priorities does not pass.”

Still, the results also contradict congressional Republicans’ conviction that voting against the infrastructure bill because of the reconciliation bill will help them win back the House or Senate. Overall, 74 percent of the more than 2,000 respondents disagree with Republican linkage. The results from swing voters are even more sobering for the Republican Party. For example, 85 percent of moderate independent voters with $40,000 to $100,000 in household income and at least some college but not more than a bachelor’s degree oppose Republican linkage. Even most right-leaning swing voters disagree with most House Republicans’ current posture. By 69 percent to 31 percent, Republican and independent participants who consider themselves slightly conservative disagree with voting against the infrastructure bill because of the reconciliation bill.

The meaning of the strong opposition to tying together the fate of the two major pieces of legislation becomes clearer with the results on how participants view the infrastructure legislation itself. Most participants agree with the 69 Democratic and Republican senators who voted for the infrastructure legislation that the proposed job creation and infrastructure improvements make sense for the country. At 65 percent support, the bipartisan bill attracts more support than either President Biden’s original American Jobs Plan (51 percent) or Senate Republicans’ (34 percent) infrastructure proposals.

These poll results fill in the backdrop for the stage on which the reconciliation bill negotiations will play out over the coming weeks. The vast majority of the more than 2,000 Americans who participated in the poll simply think that the infrastructure bill deserves a vote on its own merits. To them, threats by either Democratic or Republican members of Congress to vote against a bill that they actually support are just another example of what is wrong with Washington. In their view, if representatives believe that the infrastructure bill is good for Americans, they should vote for it. If they don’t, they should vote against it. The poll results suggest that it will be very hard for both Democrats and Republicans to defend any other position in next year’s midterm congressional elections.

Keith Allred is the Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) and a former professor of negotiation and conflict resolution at the Harvard Kennedy School. In 2011, the University of Arizona created NICD with founding honorary co-chairs George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton after the Tucson shooting that killed six and wounded another thirteen, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The bipartisan board, led today by co-chairs Tom Daschle and Christie Todd Whitman, work with staff to advance NICD’s mission to build the nation’s capacity to engage differences constructively.

Tags Bill Clinton bipartisan infrastructure Build Back Better Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Reconciliation

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