Democrats debate fast-track for infrastructure package
A sweeping infrastructure and climate change package. Lowering prescription drug prices. A long-awaited immigration overhaul.
With a nearly $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package now signed into law, Democrats on Capitol Hill have begun wrestling with this question: Which policy issues should they fast-track next?
The arcane budget reconciliation process would allow Democrats — who control razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate — to sidestep a GOP filibuster in the Senate and push through another massive legislation package with zero Republican votes, just as they did this month with President Biden’s American Rescue Plan.
At the moment, Democrats are all over the map about what should be in that next package. Moderate Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) told The Hill she wants to take up “a truly transformative bill on prescription drug pricing,” something she says “would affect every single American in their pocketbooks.”
House Budget Committee Chairman Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said some of his Democratic colleagues are clamoring to pass comprehensive immigration reform using reconciliation.
But fresh off his first major legislative victory, Biden himself says his nascent administration will turn next to a trillion-dollar infrastructure and clean energy jobs package. And a growing number of Democrats are now urging the White House and Democratic leadership to use the special budget process to push it through Congress to deliver critical roads, bridges and broadband projects to their districts and a potent campaign issue they can run on in the tough 2022 midterm elections.
“We need an FDR-like investment in our infrastructure,” Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee, told The Hill.
“It’s got to be infrastructure, and it’s got to be as much as we can squeeze into a Byrd-able infrastructure package,” added another Transportation and Infrastructure Committee member, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), referring to the rule named for the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) that determines which provisions can’t be included in the special budget process.
And first-term Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who’s quickly learned all politics is local, said his northern Bronx district desperately needs funding to repair and replace the aging sewage systems. He also wants to build a research and development hub focused on clean energy and environmental justice as well as “community innovation centers” that can help young students develop skills and passions as they consider their careers.
“We have a ton of infrastructure needs in the district,” Bowman told The Hill outside the Capitol. “We have a sewage system in Mount Vernon that’s failing, sewage being backed up into people’s homes, sewage leaking into the Long Island Sound. We’ve also had rising sea levels and flooding in Mamaroneck; we need tens of millions of dollars there to help combat this rising sea level situation. And then we have sewage leaking into Yonkers.”
Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have yet to decide what the strategy will be with the second reconciliation package. But Yarmuth, who will have some say in the matter, posed this question: Why choose just one policy matter?
The Budget chairman is predicting the next reconciliation bill will be a “grab bag” package combining several different pieces of legislation, including infrastructure, climate change, health care and more.
“I hope we can do something remotely as impactful as we just did,” Yarmuth said about the just-passed COVID package that included $1,400 stimulus checks, an extension of boosted unemployment benefits and billions for more testing and vaccines. “I suspect there will be some climate legislation, some health care legislation, I know some people are talking about putting immigration reforms in there.”
“I think it’s going to be a kitchen sink. Everyone’s going to try to get stuff in there,” he added. “You can put anything in there, as long as it clears the Byrd Rule.”
Yarmuth called infrastructure the “No. 1 priority for using reconciliation if we have to,” for both the Biden administration and congressional Democrats.
If talks with Republicans fall apart over the next two months, Yarmuth said, Democrats could begin the reconciliation process — passing another budget bill directing committees to draft individual pieces of the package — as early as May, shortly after Biden sends his fiscal 2022 budget request to Congress.
Final passage might not happen until the fall, Yarmuth said.
Still, there is reluctance in the party to a go-it-alone approach on infrastructure, a rare issue that polls well on both sides of the aisle. Centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has threatened to derail Biden’s infrastructure package unless a serious effort is made to bring Republicans on board.
“I am not going to get on a bill that cuts them out completely before we start trying,” Manchin told Axios recently.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) also signaled he wants to work with Republicans on a new package, though his $1.5 trillion package tackling crumbling infrastructure and climate change passed last summer with only three GOP votes.
Moderates like Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, and Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat in her second term, also want to see if there’s a deal to be made with Republicans.
“Can we make a good-faith effort to see if the Republicans could come along with us? Because they have been talking about infrastructure themselves for years. … Get to the negotiating table. And, like, let’s get to work,” said Slotkin, who had just wrapped up a meeting with the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
“What concerns me is that there’s some who believe we should just use budget reconciliation to go as big and as wide as we can, run on that, and call it a day,” she continued. “And I consider that, at best, a lazy approach and, at worst, malpractice.”
However, there are risks to delaying the infrastructure package while the two parties negotiate and squabble over its size and scope and how to pay for it.
Biden’s approval ratings are above 60 percent, buoyed by his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the passage of the massive health and economic stimulus, but those numbers won’t stay high forever. Passing a bipartisan package worth trillions of dollars also gets trickier the closer lawmakers get to 2022, with Republicans believing they are on the cusp of winning back the House and Senate. In the 50-50 Senate, the GOP needs to win just one net seat to flip control of the upper chamber.
Loading up the second reconciliation package with lots of complicated provisions also could ruin its chances for success. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents a border district that includes El Paso, said reconciliation might not be the best path for comprehensive immigration reform after watching the Senate parliamentarian rule that the $15 federal minimum wage violated the Byrd Rule.
“I don’t want to take any chances,” said Escobar, pointing to Biden’s immigration proposal that was introduced by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.). “We have a bill, a good vehicle that was brought forward by the White House. It will finally resolve the issue of an immigration system that has been broken for a long time and reforms that have been punted from administration to administration.
“I don’t think we should entertain any illusion that reconciliation will be easy.”
Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.) made clear that Democrats need to act with urgency in passing the infrastructure bill, any way they can, because it’s unclear who will hold control of the Congress after next year given the tight majorities and redistricting. Infrastructure is also a great campaign issue for Democrats in the 2022 cycle.
“Oftentimes, we’re in love with the abstract on the Hill. But as you’ve seen, people are calling our offices saying, ‘Where’s our [$1,400] checks? Where’s my check?’” Carson said. “And so the question becomes, how do we stop focusing on subsection A and B, and bring the message back to our constituents that says we’re going to repair roads, bridges and bring money back for hospitals.”
“No one can dispute roads, bridges, railways and skyways,” he said.