Biden's infrastructure balancing act could topple Democrats in the midterms

Biden's infrastructure balancing act could topple Democrats in the midterms
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President Joe BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE is engaging in a delicate and high-stakes balancing act on infrastructure. Biden’s and the Democratic leaderships’ success — or lack thereof — on these negotiations could determine whether or not Democrats can maintain their control of government in the 2022 midterms. 

In a noteworthy effort to make good on his promise to work across the aisle, Biden has engaged Republicans in negotiations on a traditional infrastructure bill. At the same time, in order to appease progressives, Biden will likely push for the passage of his multi-trillion dollar “family infrastructure” package through the Senate’s budget reconciliation process.

For both substantive and political reasons, I have been a long-time backer of bipartisanship. I oppose Democrats planning to use the reconciliation process — once again, as was the case with the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill — to further their own agenda and bypass bipartisanship entirely.

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Though bipartisan deal-making may at times not be the most expeditious route to pass legislation, the process itself is important, and is part of what defines a democracy. Further, politically speaking, American voters have long said they prefer that the parties work together.

Respondents in a June 2021 Morning Consult poll were no different. Eighty five percent of voters said it was important for legislation to have bipartisan support, 69 percent agreed that policies with bipartisan backing were the best policies, and 62 percent disagreed with the notion that it was a waste of time for politicians to seek bipartisan support.

With that in mind, positively, the bipartisan deal on infrastructure now seems to be back on track after the agreement eroded last week based on conditions seemingly set forth by Biden.

Last Thursday, after touting that a bipartisan agreement had been reached, Biden appeared to pull a bait-and-switch by announcing that the bipartisan bill would be passed “in tandem” with the rest of Democrats’ $4 trillion family infrastructure agenda. Republicans — and even centrists — were quick to criticize Biden for what they perceived as Democrats trying to hold the bill hostage, and many indicated that they would no longer support a deal.

Facing scrutiny from the right and center, Biden released a statement soon after stating that it was “not his intent” to imply that he was holding the bipartisan package hostage. Since then, Biden has been on a cross-country tour to campaign for the bipartisan deal. 

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While Biden’s promotion tour has placated many Republicans and moderates — and put the bipartisan deal back on the table — Biden has angered progressives who are counting on the passage of their family infrastructure agenda. 

To that end, a key Democratic leader — House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiRepublicans caught in California's recall trap Raise the debt limit while starting to fix the budget   'Justice for J6' organizer calls on demonstrators to respect law enforcement MORE (D-Calif.) — seems to be focused more on appeasing progressives in her caucus, and less on joining Biden’s apology tour. 

On Wednesday, Pelosi indicated that the House actually will not take up the bipartisan infrastructure deal until the Senate passes the sweeping family infrastructure package through reconciliation. Expectedly, her approach has drawn criticism from Republicans and worried moderate Democrats.

For both practical and political reasons, it would be a step in the wrong direction for Democrats to condition the passage of the bipartisan bill on their partisan bill. 

Practically speaking, Democrats may not even have the Senate votes in their own party to get the bill passed via reconciliation. Moderate Democratic Senators like Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Biden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week MORE (W.Va.) and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Biden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week Biden goes after top 1 percent in defending tax hikes MORE (Ariz.) will not be quick to eschew bipartisanship — even for the purpose of getting a bipartisan deal passed — and may leave Democrats a few votes short of what they need to pass their family infrastructure bill on a party-line vote.

Biden and Democratic leadership should work to pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal first. Then, the individual progressive initiatives in their “family infrastructure” package should have been considered on an issue-by-issue basis in a bipartisan way — not rammed through as a massive multi-trillion-dollar package without any negotiation or Republican support.

And to be sure, bipartisanship is in fact possible in this Congress. The bipartisan bill passed in June — which invested a quarter-trillion dollars on research and development to enhance our competitiveness against China — was passed on a 68-32 vote in the Senate. 

Ultimately, the Democrats’ failure to be incremental and bipartisan now — along with a failure to focus on economic priorities — could put Democrats in the minority in Congress in 2022, and could also make a Republican victory in the 2024 presidential election much more likely.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an advisor to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael BloombergMichael BloombergWithout drastic changes, Democrats are on track to lose big in 2022 Bidens, former presidents mark 9/11 anniversary The tragedy of 9/11 — an inflection point in American history MORE. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”