Republicans renew intraparty battle over trillion-dollar spending

Fighting within the Republican Party over a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill is getting intense, and some GOP strategists see it as a defining issue in next year’s primaries.

The internal debate has intensified after an official analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) showing that the legislation will add $256 billion to the federal deficit, despite promises from GOP lawmakers that it would be fully paid for.

The infrastructure bill already had the potential to be a big primary issue given opposition to the measure from former President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel faces double-edged sword with Alex Jones, Roger Stone Trump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE, who has called senators backing it “RINOs,” or Republicans-in-name-only. The fact that the measure has moved forward anyway has widely been interpreted as a sign GOP senators are tuning Trump out on the issue.

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Yet the spending, and the CBO score, could fire up the debate, and has led to sniping over the bill. 

One Republican who was taken aback by the disappointing CBO score was Sen. Bill Hagerty (Tenn.), who objected to an attempt by Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerSchumer mourns death of 'amazing' father Feehery: The honest contrarian Biden administration to release oil from strategic reserve: reports MORE (D-N.Y.) to schedule a series of amendments late into the night Thursday to get the bill passed by Friday morning.

Hagerty was under intense pressure as about a dozen GOP colleagues huddled around him Thursday night in hopes of getting him to agree to let the bill move forward, but the first-term GOP senator, who was endorsed by Trump, held firm.

“The conversation around the bill all along is that this would be an infrastructure package that would be paid for — a hard infrastructure package that would be paid for. We certainly found out that there was a miss,” Hagerty told The Hill on Friday.

“When I saw the CBO report, it didn’t just miss by a little, it missed by a lot. A quarter of a trillion dollars is a significant amount of money despite what’s been happening up there in Washington,” he added. “I just can’t in good conscience proceed in the middle of the night when the public has not a chance to digest this.”

Hagerty said he was unnerved by the prospect of greenlighting speedy passage of the $1 trillion bill knowing that Schumer would proceed immediately to a Senate budget resolution to set up passage for a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill with only Democratic votes later this year.

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“There’s no way that I’m going to be comfortable moving to expedite this in the middle of the night because all it really is doing is laying the foundation to move to a $3.5 trillion totally partisan spending package. Accelerating that is not something in America’s interest and that’s [what] would have happened had I allowed this to move forward in the middle of the night,” he added.

Some Republicans see rising inflation, the soaring deficit and President BidenJoe BidenSouth Africa health minister calls travel bans over new COVID variant 'unjustified' Biden attends tree lighting ceremony after day out in Nantucket Senior US diplomat visiting Southeast Asia to 'reaffirm' relations MORE’s big spending plans as a potent issue heading into the 2022 midterm and 2024 elections and worry that voting for the bipartisan package will give Biden a major political win.

“I don’t think Republicans should be complicit in the ticking inflation bomb we’re facing,” Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions Advocates see pilot program to address inequalities from highways as crucial first step Ted Cruz ribs Newsom over vacation in Mexico: 'Cancun is much nicer than Cabo' MORE (R-Texas) told The Hill.

“This bill is a mistake. It continues spending trillions of dollars we don’t have and it is the gateway drug to the Democrats’ reckless tax-and-spend bill next week, trying to spend another $3.5 trillion,” he said, voicing the same concerns as Hagerty.

Others argue that there’s little they can do to stop the Democrats’ spending agenda because Schumer can use the budget reconciliation process to pass infrastructure legislation without any GOP votes.

They think they can achieve better policy outcomes and bring more money back to their home states by working with Biden and his Democratic allies. These GOP lawmakers think it’s good politics to be able to take credit on tens of billions of dollars for new projects in their home states, even though they acknowledge Biden will get a significant victory.

“It's possible for the Democrats to write an infrastructure bill all by themselves and simply pass it through a process known as reconciliation. That's one option. The other option is to work together on a bipartisan basis where we craft a better bill with the input of Republicans and Democrats,” Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead China draws scrutiny over case of tennis star Peng Shuai MORE (R-Utah) argued to his colleagues on the Senate floor.

Vin Weber, a Republican strategist, said the $1 trillion infrastructure bill could become a defining issue in next year’s primaries, even more so than allegiance to Trump, a sensitive topic that split the party in the 2016 and 2020 elections and this year as well.

He said divisions are getting “big, very big.”

“It doesn’t surprise me that anybody facing a primary in the Republican Party would be lining up against this because I think Republican primary voters are very quickly going to come to the conclusion that this is a vote in favor of an inflationary multitrillion-dollar spending plan,” he explained.

“My instinct is that that this is big. My instinct is that the division over this in the party is more meaningful and potentially destructive than the divisions over Donald Trump and Jan. 6,” he added. “This is really basic. It’s about what is the proper role of government, what’s the size and scope of government we want to pursue."

“The Republicans do not need to back this bill,” he said.

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Trump recently warned that support for the bipartisan bill could become a litmus test in next year’s primaries.

“This will be a victory for the Biden Administration and Democrats, and will be heavily used in the 2022 election. It is a loser for the USA, a terrible deal, and makes the Republicans look weak, foolish, and dumb,” he said in a statement. “Don’t do it Republicans—Patriots will never forget! If this deal happens, lots of primaries will be coming your way!”

Chip Saltsman, a Republican strategist, said the Republican base is quickly turning against the bill, even though as many as 20 Senate Republicans are thinking about voting for it.

“Really, another trillion dollars into an economy that’s already got what some people consider run-away inflation?” he said, summarizing the conversation among Republican voters.

Conservatives are complaining that a significant portion of the bill’s spending is going to priorities they don’t see as “core infrastructure,” such as $7.5 billion for clean school buses and ferries, $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging, and $21 billion to clean up brownfield and superfund sites.

“When you’re talking about spending that kind of money, I think most people would like it to go to fixing roads and bridges and waterways and airports and I’m not sure the base of the Republican Party believes that’s where it’s going,” Saltsman said.

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Even Senate Republican leaders are split over how to handle the legislation.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (R-Ky.) has taken a largely hands-off approach, keeping an open mind on the bill and giving a group of moderates in his conference space to put together a deal with the White House and Democratic moderates.

That approach has emboldened moderates such as Romney, Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanBipartisan success in the Senate signals room for more compromise Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — US mulls Afghan evacuees' future Hillicon Valley — Presented by Ericsson — DOJ unveils new election hacking charges MORE (R-Ohio), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks On The Money — Biden sticks with Powell despite pressure Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE (R-Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Man charged with threatening Alaska senators pleads not guilty Two women could lead a powerful Senate spending panel for first time in history MORE (R-Alaska) and Bill CassidyBill CassidyLegislators look to expand health care access through telehealth, biosimilars Infrastructure deal is proof that Congress can still do good, bipartisan work The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - House Democrats eye big vote on Biden measure MORE (R-La.) to negotiate a bill that gave more in concessions to Biden than what Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoWhite House looks to rein in gas prices ahead of busy travel season Bipartisan success in the Senate signals room for more compromise Biden administration takes step toward reversing Trump water regulations rollback MORE (W.Va.), the lead Republican negotiator on infrastructure earlier this year, was willing to concede.

McConnell helped the bipartisan bill along by advising colleagues last month that they should weigh it separately from the Democrats’ machinations around a much larger $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” spending bill they plan to pass in the fall.

But Senate Republican Conference Chairman John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoWhite House looks to rein in gas prices ahead of busy travel season Biden administration to release 50 million barrels of oil from strategic reserve Energy information chief blames market for high fuel prices MORE (Wyo.), the third-ranking member of the GOP leadership, insisted on the floor that colleagues would be right to see the $1 trillion bipartisan bill and the coming $3.5 trillion Democratic reconciliation bill as linked.

“The bills are not completely separate. It would be nice if they were, but they are not,” he warned, referring to a pledge by House Democrats to sit on the $1 trillion bipartisan bill until the Senate also completes work on the larger reconciliation bill.

“[Speaker] Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Bipartisan success in the Senate signals room for more compromise The GOP's post-1/6 playbook is clear — and it's dangerous MORE has said time and time again there will not be one penny for roads, not one penny for bridges, not one penny for airports or ports until she gets the reckless tax-and-spending bill that she is demanding,” Barrasso said.