Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal

Senate Democrats in tough races next year, namely Sens. Mark Kelly (Ariz.) and Maggie Hassan (N.H.), say it’s more important for an infrastructure spending bill to be bipartisan than for it to fit in all the priorities that President Biden has outlined and his party base are clamoring for.

The implications for control of the Senate and House after 2022 are not lost on the Biden White House, and the bloc of vulnerable Democrats could carry significant influence over what direction Democrats and the White House pursue in the weeks to come.

The White House has given extensive runway to bipartisan talks over the last few months. Officials close to the administration insist there is a genuine desire to get a deal with Republicans and stress they are willing to let the process play out.

Brokering a bipartisan deal would show Biden is able to work across the aisle after he campaigned on his reputation as a creature of the Senate who could restore some sense of collegiality. White House officials are keenly aware that a bipartisan deal could shield vulnerable lawmakers from a tough vote on a partisan, multitrillion-dollar reconciliation package that Republicans in purple states could wield against them in campaign ads next year.

“I don’t think they’ve ever given up on bipartisanship,” said one Democratic strategist close to the White House. “I think they’ll keep trying to get something until they can’t, which is likely around Labor Day. That’s when you’d need to go with reconciliation.”

Kelly, who narrowly won last year’s Arizona special election and is a top GOP target in 2022, says “at the top of my list” is to pass an infrastructure bill with bipartisan support.

“I want to see this get done and I prefer we do this in a bipartisan way,” he said.

While many of his more liberal colleagues have grand plans about fighting climate change, expanding access to child care and broadening Medicare, Kelly says simply funding traditional infrastructure needs is a top concern of Arizonans.

“I’ve driven every corner of Arizona over the last couple of years. Seems like every road and highway needs help,” he said. “The major highway between Tucson and Phoenix doesn’t have feeder roads in most places. It’s a public safety issue.”

Kelly is one of 21 senators, including 11 Republicans, nine Democrats and an independent who caucuses with Democrats, supporting a $974 billion, five-year infrastructure spending plan.

Hassan, who also signed onto the bipartisan framework last week, said “what’s important is that we work together to reflect the values of our constituents.”

A University of New Hampshire poll from late April found that spending on traditional infrastructure had the most support of the elements of President Biden’s infrastructure agenda.

“I think it’s always important when we can do things in a bipartisan way to reflect the way our constituents do things. They work together without regard to political party all the time and there’s large bipartisan support for infrastructure,” Hassan said.

The Problem Solvers Caucus released its own $1.2 trillion infrastructure framework earlier this month in a push for a bipartisan deal. The effort is backed by Democrats in purple districts such as Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), Jared Golden (D-Maine) and Chris Pappas (D-N.H.).

With Democrats holding narrow majorities in both chambers of Congress, many progressives are clamoring to cut off talks with Republicans and move forward with a reconciliation bill that looks more like the $2.2 trillion proposal Biden announced in late March with investments in roads, bridges, broadband, elder care and efforts to combat climate change.

But the realities of a 50-50 Senate and a nine-seat majority for Democrats in the House have made clear how much sway moderate members from purple states and districts have.

Kelly faces reelection in Arizona next November. He defeated former Sen. Martha McSally (R) in a special election last year by roughly 80,000 votes, but Biden only carried the state by 11,000 votes and the party in power has historically had headwinds during midterm years.

Hassan was last on the ballot in 2016, when she defeated incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) by roughly 1,000 votes in one of the most closely contested races in recent memory.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the loudest proponents for passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill, said it didn’t take much to convince Kelly and Hassan to sign onto the proposal last week.

“We didn’t have to go out and recruit. They’re aggressively wanting to be part of it, which speaks volumes,” he said.

“This is one time in the history of our country — we’ve never been more divided than we are right now — if we can’t put our country above ourselves, God help us all,” he added.

Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) are among the other senators up for reelection in 2022 who are expected to face difficult challenges in either the primary or general election.

Murkwoski and Moran are among the Republicans who have backed the bipartisan infrastructure framework. Spokespeople for Cortez Masto and Warnock did not respond to requests for comment about whether they prefer a bipartisan approach or moving ahead on reconciliation.

“I think members facing tough reelections in 2022 would rather be seen as being bipartisan, but regular people care about results more than process,” said a second Democratic strategist. “[Senate Minority Leader] McConnell understands that. Bringing money home and building bridges and fixing roads will help them get re-elected more than any magic compromise with Republicans.

“The thing McConnell understands better than most politicians in Washington is 99% of the things we focus on, like process, don’t matter to regular people,” the strategist added.

Democrats hope that passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill will help inoculate their candidates from efforts by Republicans to paint the Democratic Party as being dominated by its most liberal members, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the author of the Green New Deal.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) says the $6 trillion reconciliation package that Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, floated in a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday will be a liability for Democrats in swing states next year.

“We’re greatly confident that the contrast between what the Democrats are doing and what the American people want is so significant that it’s going to help us retain the seats we have, pick up seats and win the House,” he said. 

Speaking of the $6 trillion reconciliation proposal, Barrasso said Sanders “has told other Democrats that he’s expecting the Democrats to lose either the House or the Senate in two years and this is their last opportunity to take this big socialistic step.” 

Tags 2022 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Catherine Cortez Masto Charles Schumer Chris Pappas Infrastructure Jerry Moran Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Barrasso Kelly Ayotte Lisa Murkowski Maggie Hassan Mark Kelly Martha McSally midterms Raphael Warnock Tom Malinowski
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