Biden allies eye two-step strategy on infrastructure
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a key ally of President Biden, and several White House advisers want Congress to first move a smaller infrastructure bill in hopes of securing a bipartisan win before trying to address more ambitious goals on climate change and health care in a subsequent measure.
They are aiming to secure at least one big bipartisan accomplishment before Democratic and Republican lawmakers return to their trenches to battle over elements of Biden’s agenda that energize progressives and anger conservatives.
However, it remains to be seen if GOP legislators will join forces with Democrats and give Biden a bipartisan victory knowing the next step is to pass a massive partisan bill with a simple majority vote under the budget reconciliation process.
Coons is having discussions with Senate colleagues to rally bipartisan backing.
“I just had two on the floor,” he said of conversations during a vote Tuesday morning.
Though details have not been finalized, Biden is likely to try to split the proposal into two bills, with one focused on infrastructure that would include policies that Republicans have shown support for in the past and could get behind.
Still, Biden signaled with his first coronavirus rescue package that he won’t wait around for Republicans to support a bill.
There’s also talk among Biden allies about putting together a small string of bipartisan accomplishments, perhaps following up a smaller infrastructure bill with legislation to confront the rise of China — a top priority of Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
“There is a whole series of enactable, smaller-in-size, bipartisan bills that touch on everything from gun background checks to immigration, to national service and civics education, to how do we respond to China, to how do we invest in our own manufacturing and innovation,” Coons said. “There are lots of good ideas.
“I really think it’s important that we show that we can legislate on issues that matter to the American people while we are still working through what does a big infrastructure and climate bill look like,” he said.
Democrats say Biden is eager to get a bipartisan triumph during his first few months in office.
“Anything we can do bipartisan is good,” said centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), adding that if Biden is talking about breaking up the infrastructure to package to get Republican support, it shows how serious he is about changing the tone in Washington.
“If he’s talking like that — I think he’s sincere in that,” Manchin said.
The president’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed Congress this month without a single Republican vote in either the Senate or the House, undercutting Biden’s pledge during the 2020 campaign to work with Republicans and restore some measure of bipartisanship to the nation’s capital.
Democrats say the new administration is chiefly focused on the timeline of the pandemic and addressing the economic impact in his Build Back Better proposal. That could mean moving without Republican support to pass a single package using budget reconciliation.
“All of these actions are time bound because there’s still an enormous number of Americans that are hurting economically and that are looking to what’s next to spur the private sector to support more jobs,” said Josh Freed, who leads the climate and energy program at centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.
There’s long been bipartisan support in Washington for overhauling the nation’s traditional infrastructure system: roads, bridges, rail lines and waterworks.
The Senate and House passed by overwhelming margins a $305 billion five-year highway bill in 2015. The sticking point in recent years has been finding a way to pay for infrastructure spending. The White House is mulling raising tax rates on corporations and wealthy individuals to pay for at least part of its infrastructure bill.
But Biden also wants to use his infrastructure agenda to combat global warming, expand access to community colleges and prekindergarten programs, establish a national paid-leave program, modernize schools and weatherize private and public housing.
Speaking on background, a Senate Democrat on Tuesday called pre-kindergarten and national paid leave “infrastructure for families.”
Top Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), are already mobilizing against another Biden package costing trillions, claiming Democrats are just using their narrow congressional majorities to pass a liberal “wish list.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), meanwhile, said the infrastructure package should lower prescription drug costs.
Fitting these ambitious goals into an infrastructure package will alienate Republicans. Democrats would have to again rely on special budgetary rules to pass it with a simple majority through the Senate.
But progressive senators are leery about splitting infrastructure proposals with strong bipartisan support from other Democratic priorities they want included in an infrastructure package. They worry that a single Democratic defection in the 50-50 Senate could wind up sinking whatever broader plan they hope to pass under special budgetary rules later this year.
“I care about getting it done, and we need all the parts done. We need roads and bridges and child care. We need to attack the climate crisis head on,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
“I want to see the details of how they’re planning to make sure that the climate issues and the child care issues don’t get left behind. We can’t have the train leave the station and critical parts are left on the platform,” she added.
There’s also uncertainty about whether slimming down the infrastructure package to focus narrowly on traditional infrastructure priorities will attract enough Republican support to overcome a filibuster.
“It’s a pretty cynical ploy to try and appeal to Republicans to vote for all that stuff and then do reconciliation to do all the other hard stuff,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).
“If they want to sit down with Republicans, which they should, the Republicans would work with them on an infrastructure package,” he added, but warned “if they decide to do that as a ploy to lure Republicans in to vote for the easy stuff and then do all the controversial stuff through reconciliation, I don’t think our guys will take the bait on that.”
Schumer said he had a long conversation with White House officials this weekend about the strategy for passing Biden’s infrastructure agenda.
“We’re talking to the White House regularly. We had a lengthy discussion this weekend,” he said. “The one thing we’re united on — Speaker Pelosi, President Biden, myself — we want a big, bold, strong package.”
“As we’ve always said, we prefer to work with Republicans to attain that package. If we can’t, we’ll move forward other ways, but there are various different options that we’re exploring,” he stated.
A former Biden adviser said he expected the White House to at least try giving regular order a chance before resorting to reconciliation to pass any kind of infrastructure bill.
But the source expressed skepticism that enough GOP senators would get on board to make it workable.
“Have you met the GOP?” the adviser responded when asked about the prospects of passing legislation with such a high price tag.
Brett Samuels contributed.