Progressives threaten to block bipartisan infrastructure proposal

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) discusses the Ultra Millionaire Tax Act
Greg Nash

A growing number of Senate progressives say they will not support a scaled-down infrastructure package on its own, arguing it must be part of a broader agreement to spend trillions of dollars.

At least four members of the Democratic caucus said a $974 billion infrastructure proposal — backed by five Republicans and five Democrats last week — will not get their votes.

They are insisting that any bipartisan package advanced by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) under regular order must be accompanied by an agreement to pass a much larger infrastructure measure through the budget reconciliation process, which would allow Democrats to sidestep a GOP filibuster if all 50 caucus members stick together.

The demand from progressives would significantly complicate the prospect of getting 60 votes for a slimmed-down compromise bill.

“I’m confident that there’s only one deal that’s out there, and that’s one deal that covers all the pieces we need in infrastructure. There’s no half a deal or a quarter of a deal that I can support, and I think I have a lot of Democratic colleagues who feel the same,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) before a Tuesday caucus meeting.

“I’m a no on half a deal,” she said when asked specifically about the bipartisan proposal. “We need a whole deal and a whole deal means there’s child care, there’s green energy and there’s a reform of the tax code that makes the rich and the powerful pay their fair share.”

Three other progressives have voiced similar demands, which means any stand-alone bipartisan infrastructure deal would likely need at least 15 or 20 Republican votes to get through the Senate.

The dimming prospects for any bipartisan package means there’s more pressure on President Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Schumer to accelerate negotiations on an infrastructure bill that can pass the Senate and House with only Democratic votes under the budget reconciliation process.

Members of the House Democratic Caucus were briefed Tuesday by Steve Ricchetti, a top adviser to Biden, and Shalanda Young, the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, who said they would give Senate negotiators seven to 10 days to reach a bipartisan agreement, according to Democrats in the meeting. If no deal is reached during that period, the officials said, Democrats will gauge the progress of those talks and charge ahead with a partisan package if need be.

The White House pushed back on that characterization later in the day, emphasizing that Biden’s preference remains a bipartisan deal and that there is no deadline for cutting off talks.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Monday that he would not vote for the bipartisan proposal unveiled last week because it would not be paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy.

“I wouldn’t vote for it,” Sanders said Monday evening. “The bottom line is there are needs facing this country. Now is the time to address those needs and it has to be paid for in a progressive way given the fact that we have massive income, wealth inequality in America.” 

Two other progressives — Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) — on Tuesday signaled they would not support any scaled-down bipartisan infrastructure deal unless there’s also agreement from all 50 members of the Democratic caucus to also move a larger bill under budget reconciliation, and that the details of the bigger package are spelled out in advance.

Asked if he could vote for the bipartisan proposal unveiled last week if promised that a broader reconciliation bill will come to the Senate floor soon after, Markey said, “I could not.”

“We’re saying that there absolutely has to be a guaranteed deal that climate is built into these infrastructure bills and that it matches the problem that has to be solved. We can’t have dessert before the main course. The main course is a climate infrastructure bill,” he added. “We can’t leave the climate behind. We have to have a guarantee that it will be included in a bill that has the votes to be put ultimately on the desk of President Biden.”

Merkley explained that progressives want “two tracks welded together.” 

“And before the infrastructure bill, the bipartisan bill, ever goes to the floor, we have the 50 votes — hopefully a lot of Republicans joining us — the 50 votes to make sure a reconciliation process is guaranteed,” he said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), another outspoken climate advocate, voiced a similar demand on Tuesday.

“I think there are obviously going to be details that are going to be in play until the very end. But I’d want a pretty damn clear approach to an open runway that I could have personal confidence in would provide us with the climate legislation we need,” he said.

Asked what he thought about the climate-related provisions in the $974 billion bipartisan proposal, Whitehouse answered: “Meh.”

The growing opposition among progressives poses a serious challenge to picking up Republican support for the smaller bipartisan package. If Republicans know that passing a bipartisan stand-alone bill will be part of a larger, guaranteed agreement to pass a second, multitrillion-dollar infrastructure investment package with only Democratic votes, it will diminish their desire to cooperate at all.

“More of our members will jump ship,” a senior Republican aide predicted, if they see passage of the bipartisan proposal as smoothing the way for centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to later back a larger reconciliation bill.

Updated at 3:02 p.m.

Tags Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Ed Markey Elizabeth Warren Jeff Merkley Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Sheldon Whitehouse Steve Ricchetti
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