Dems’ momentum hits quagmire over infrastructure plans
Democrats are facing big headaches as they try to craft a sweeping infrastructure and jobs package.
Fresh off a victory on the coronavirus relief bill, where they eschewed GOP support, President Biden and congressional leaders are homing in on one of Washington’s biggest legislative white whales as their next legislative priority.
The goal could test Democratic unity due to razor-thin margins in both chambers and early signs of contention over how to pay for the spending, including talk of a tax hike, and whether the bill should be narrowed in order to make it bipartisan.
“Writing tax law is, in the best of circumstances, challenging. When you’re looking at all these moving pieces, yes, this is very different. It’s going to be a big lift, but the stakes are so important,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Roy Wyden (D-Ore.) told The Hill about passing an infrastructure package.
Democrats are leaving the door open to making the bill bipartisan, which would have big ramifications for everything from the scope to the cost, as well as the policies eventually included in the final product. But at the same time, they’re seeking movement within the next two months, leading some to predict Democrats will attempt to use reconciliation to pass it.
Democrats want to pass a bill out of committee by Memorial Day and get a bill to Biden by September, though Congress is under pressure to move faster. It’s unlikely the White House would unveil its plan this month as officials take a victory lap on the COVID-19 relief bill and juggle a burgeoning border crisis.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg declined to specify a timeline Monday but told reporters that Biden would release an infrastructure proposal “in short order.”
“We’ve got a clock on everything we’re doing, especially because the present surface reauthorization is up in September. We’re not waiting until September in order to act. Conversations are taking place right now, as you’ve seen, Oval Office meetings with the president and leaders from both parties from both houses,” Buttigieg said.
The White House has said that Biden would like to move forward in a bipartisan fashion on infrastructure legislation, but it has not ruled out pursuing the budget reconciliation process.
Democrats acknowledge they are likely to ultimately need reconciliation, referring to the budget procedure that will let them bypass the 60-vote legislative filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) hinted at the likely outcome in January when he told MSNBC that they would “probably” use it for Biden’s Build Back Better Plan, the name for his infrastructure and jobs package.
That would require the support of every Democratic senator — a tall task that was put under the spotlight earlier this month when the coronavirus bill was stalled for hours.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) — who is on the committee responsible for crafting the bill and had talked about wanting bipartisan support — was overheard Monday telling Buttigieg that Democrats are “most likely going to have to use reconciliation.”
Still, several Democrats — including Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Bob Casey (Pa.) and Chris Coons (Del.) — are talking up the need to make the bill bipartisan.
“I wouldn’t be talking about reconciliation until we try to work something together,” Manchin said.
Senate Democrats have moved to gather bipartisan input.
“We have … sent out to all of our colleagues in the Senate, all 100 colleagues, asked for them to spend the next several weeks communicating with their governors, communicating with their state departments of transportation to better understand what their state’s priorities are with respect to surface transportation, and to provide input to our committee staff,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
But Republicans are already warning they think they’ll get shut out of the process, after Democrats went it alone on coronavirus relief.
“I am concerned about it, because there’s a lot of chatter about just basically denigrating our ideas and just saying we’re going to go big,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the top Republican on Carper’s panel.
Some of the ideas floated by Democrats to include in the bill, such as climate change language or paying for it with an increase in taxes for some, would shed the GOP support needed to get it through the Senate.
“I don’t think raising taxes in a recession is a good idea. … I think they’ve got a mess on their hands and they’re trying to figure their way out of it,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), while adding that the bill needs to be paid for “somehow.”
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, indicated that GOP senators wouldn’t be on board for undoing part of the 2017 tax law, something under consideration by the White House.
“I can’t imagine any Republicans would vote to raise taxes,” Thune said. “I think they’re going to figure out a way to pay for some of this stuff. … [But] we’re not going to want to undo the 2017 tax law.”
One of the biggest questions — whether Democrats go it alone or ultimately make it bipartisan — will be how to pay for it.
“We have senators across the political spectrum. Some who say they would want to pay for it. … Some who have said given the interest rates being so low their interest is not paying for infrastructure,” Wyden added.
Bloomberg News reported Monday that the White House is discussing a slew of potential changes to the tax code, including repealing parts of the 2017 GOP tax bill that cut the corporate tax rate, raising the tax rate for some high-income earners and expanding the estate tax.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that it was too early to discuss how to pay for a package, given one had not been unveiled, but she reiterated that Biden would not raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000.
“The president remains committed to his pledge from the campaign that nobody making under $400,000 a year will have their taxes increased,” Psaki said. “His priority and focus has always been on people paying their fair share and also focusing on corporations that may not be paying their fair share either.”
Buttigieg has previously floated covering at least part of the bill through deficit spending, which was used to cover the full cost of the latest coronavirus package.
Asked about talk from others in the party about adding to the deficit, Manchin bristled.
“I’m not talking about not paying for it,” he said, adding that he wants to see the cost of a bill covered.
Wyden, whose panel is at the center of the debate, acknowledged the debate among Democrats is just getting started.
“The procedural thicket, you know, here, is certainly a challenge,” Wyden said. “There are a lot of ideas now being discussed.”
Morgan Chalfant contributed.
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