Biden risks break with progressives on infrastructure
President Biden’s relationship with his party’s liberal base is being tested by a bipartisan framework on infrastructure spending, which has sparked a revolt from progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
The big question is whether Biden will endorse the bipartisan plan, even though many Democrats are disappointed it leaves out many of their priorities.
If Biden throws his weight behind the $974 billion, five-year plan, Democratic strategists predict the party will quickly unify behind him, even if they do so reluctantly.
But doing so would scar Biden’s relationship with progressives, who worry the president might fall short on his pledge to deliver big and bold change.
“You have members who are going, ‘Oh my God, this is setting up for a big failure on climate,’” said one Democratic senator who requested anonymity to discuss growing concerns that Biden will help push the scaled-down infrastructure package across the finish line but won’t have enough political capital left to get what many progressives want in a follow-up reconciliation package.
“We may not get another chance for a generation. This is a pretty tense moment in terms of that piece of the puzzle,” the lawmaker said.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a leading proponent of including bold climate change provisions in a broader infrastructure package that Democrats hope to move through the Senate with a simple majority under budget reconciliation, says he doesn’t exactly know how leaders can guarantee that a scaled-down bipartisan bill and a big, bold reconciliation package can both pass.
Asked how Democrats can ensure that all of Biden’s spending priorities can pass the Senate if they are broken up into two packages, Markey said: “That would be my question.”
Many progressives instead have voiced their preference for only moving one big infrastructure spending package through the Senate, and several prominent liberals have called for talks with GOP senators to be shut down.
But moderate Democrats say they expect to unveil a more detailed bipartisan plan next week and feel confident that Biden will endorse it if a group of 21 Republican and Democratic senators can reach a more detailed agreement.
“Once we get an agreement, yes. If we’re able to get a good agreement, Biden will be on board,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), one of five Democratic centrists who first signed on to the bipartisan framework.
“I’ve talked to people in the White House,” he added.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), another original co-sponsor of the bipartisan framework, said the proposal was put together in close consultation with senior White House staff.
“We’re working very closely with the White House,” he noted.
Senior Biden officials met with Democratic members of the bipartisan group Wednesday afternoon. Biden adviser Steve Ricchetti later called it a “very cordial and productive discussion.”
Democratic strategists predict liberal Democrats will fall in line if Biden backs the proposal, though they caution there are still significant disagreements even among the bipartisan negotiators over how to pay for it.
Jim Manley, a strategist and former Senate Democratic leadership aide, said Biden could unify the party behind a bipartisan package, despite progressives’ complaints with the $974 bipartisan framework.
He predicted, however, that won’t stop Democrats in the party’s liberal wing from complaining.
“The bottom line here is that no matter how all this plays out, and I’m referring to a bipartisan bill versus a reconciliation process, a whole lot of Democratic priorities are going to be left on the cutting room floor. The question is how the left responds,” he said.
“For a majority of Americans, they just want to see success. They just want to get something done,” he added.
He said progressives are likely “to be disappointed no matter what.”
It’s likely to be a comedown for many progressives who earlier this year praised Biden for exceeding their expectations with his $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan and $1.8 trillion American Families Plan.
Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in April that “a lot of us expected a more conservative administration.”
Keeping progressives happy will be tough if Biden embraces a scaled-down infrastructure bill that doesn’t raise taxes on corporations or wealthy individuals.
“I think it’s an important test,” Manley said.
The political outcome will depend on the details of the bipartisan package and how much Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) can fit into a follow-up reconciliation bill.
The White House threw a bone to progressives Friday by clarifying on the record that Biden would oppose any proposal to index the gas tax to inflation, which he sees as breaking his promise not to raise taxes on Americans earning less than $400,000 a year.
Progressives would prefer that Biden drop the bipartisan talks altogether and focus on rallying Democrats behind one package that would pass through the Senate with a simple-majority vote under budget reconciliation.
While moderates want to continue bipartisan talks in hopes of finalizing a compromise agreement, liberals are betting Biden has enough political muscle to push a reconciliation bill through Congress right now.
“Progressives are unified around one plan,” said Bob Borosage, co-founder of Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive advocacy group.
While Schumer is promising liberal colleagues there will be a two-track process to pass two infrastructure bills, centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key swing vote, said he won’t commit in advance to supporting a reconciliation package — at least not now.
“They’re going to have a lot of trouble. I think they’re going to have trouble rounding up the votes,” Borosage warned. “People want to get something done, so there’s a momentum. But there’s no desire to do something that doesn’t include climate and doesn’t include the family assistance.”
Aside from the Senate, where Sanders, Warren, Markey and others are raising concerns over the bipartisan framework, activists warn it could also have trouble passing the House, where Democrats have only a four-seat majority.
“You’ve got the Progressive Caucus, you’ve got ‘the squad,’ you’ve got others and all the groups way out with a set of minimum demands about what’s going to be in it,” Borosage said of groups of House liberals. “A president can call on the party to unify, but I think it’s going to be a tough sell unless there’s a commitment to” guaranteeing a viable path for passing a bigger infrastructure bill later in the year with only Democratic votes.
Moderates such as Manchin think Biden won’t cave to growing pressure from his left flank on the infrastructure talks.
“I hope so,” Manchin said of Tester’s prediction that Biden will endorse a slimmed-down bipartisan package. “Jon’s always pretty accurate and knows what he’s talking about.”