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 Trump, 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.
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 Schumer (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.
“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 Biden’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 Cruz (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 Romney (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.
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.
Even Senate Republican leaders are split over how to handle the legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (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 Portman (R-Ohio), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) to negotiate a bill that gave more in concessions to Biden than what Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (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 Barrasso (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 Pelosi 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.