Today's vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill is dangerously premature

Today's vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill is dangerously premature
© Greg Nash

Five days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, America’s newly sworn-in president, Lyndon Johnson, addressed a mournful joint session of Congress. Offering words to assuage the nation’s grief, he vowed to champion one of the slain president’s highest priorities — passage of a strong civil rights bill. Johnson, who had earlier been opposed to federal civil rights legislation, understood that getting the bill through the Senate would be difficult. Some of his former Senate Democratic friends had vowed to block the bill. And that left his White House dependent on support from an unlikely source: Senate Republicans.         

For the next six months, Johnson rode the Senate. Refusing to acquiesce to calls for a watered-down bill, he used the famous “Johnson Treatment,” a unique combination of flattery, cajoling, and threats to bring both Democrats and Republicans on board. Every night he would demand that his aides produce a tally sheet with the latest intelligence on how each senator was leaning. As one of his top aides, Joe Califano, later explained: “Johnson would devour these tally sheets, thumb moving from line to line, like a baseball fanatic reviewing the box scores of his home team. It was never too late to make one more call or hold another meeting to nail down an uncertain vote.”           

The bipartisan infrastructure bill currently working its way through Congress — a bill President Joe BidenJoe BidenCDC chief clarifies vaccine comments: 'There will be no nationwide mandate' Overnight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Biden urges local governments to stave off evictions MORE has helped to shape with a bipartisan cohort of senators and the support of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus — will not become as iconic as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed with the support of both Democrats and Republicans only after months of filibuster. But if this bipartisan infrastructure legislation passes, it will emerge as one of the most important bills passed in this Congress, if not in this decade. And its success hinges on serious, deliberate, detail-oriented negotiations, which raises an important question: Why, if time is needed to hash out the details of the present bipartisan plan, has Senate Democratic Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerAn August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Schumer's moment to transform transit and deepen democracy MORE (D-N.Y.) chosen to schedule a vote on the bill today?        

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The vote had been scheduled before the bill had even been written. Yes, Biden and several members of the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans, have come to the broad outlines of an agreement. The bill will invest more in America’s hard infrastructure than some conservatives think wise, and less than some liberals think sufficient. But the exact details — how much money will go into various elements of the plan (roads, rails, broadband, water systems, etc.) and how Washington will pay for those investments — still need to be hammered out. Isn’t it clearly premature to schedule a vote today?      

The move appears so out of step with what needs to happen to get the bipartisan bill through that some observers have begun to ask whether Schumer hopes that a quick vote will end in failure to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill so that he can try to move an even larger bill through Congress without Republican support through the reconciliation process. My guess is that Schumer is asking for an early vote to force action more quickly. Having served in the Senate for more than two decades — and having friends I keep in touch with on both sides of the aisle in both houses — there’s no guarantee that every Democrat will support a larger bill through reconciliation, which would leave the White House with nothing to show for all this effort.          

When the story of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s passage is retold, Mike Mansfield (Mont.) the former Senate Democratic Leader, is seldom given a starring role. That was probably to Johnson’s liking, and to give credit to Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen (Ill.), who led an effort to prevail on fellow Republicans to support the bill after months of negotiation. 

But Mansfield’s role — his willingness to give the White House time to hash through the details of the legislation and fight through the South’s filibuster — was key. If he had rushed the process, or scheduled a hasty vote, he would likely have scuttled the entire effort. 

Today, Schumer can learn from Mansfield’s example. If we’re going to address the nation’s infrastructure challenge the best way, namely the bipartisan way, the Senate should give the bill the time it needs for a full, fair consideration.

Joe Lieberman served as a U.S. senator from Connecticut from 1989-2013. He is co-chairman of No Labels