WASHINGTON — Speaking from the White House on Wednesday, President Biden touted his $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal, known as the American Jobs Plan, as a reimagination of the economy for the new century.
“It’s not a plan that tinkers around the edges,” Biden said.
Supporters and critics agree on that, even if they agree on little else. For most Democrats, the proposal is a once-in-a-generation chance to address, in one fell swoop, long-standing goals. There is money to be allotted for renewable-energy jobs, public housing upgrades and even home health workers. The plan broadens the meaning of the term “infrastructure” as it seeks to accelerate a move away from a coal economy and reverse decades of systemic racism, two central themes of the Biden administration.
But it is political horse trading, not visionary thinking, that will decide the fate of this no-tinkering-around-the-edges proposal. The sweeping proposal will succeed or fail based on the whims of just a few legislators — perhaps few enough to have fit into a Capitol elevator in the pre-social-distancing days.
That tinkering will be the work of Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill — Chuck Schumer in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House of Representatives — as well as White House chief of staff Ron Klain, who has already been courting progressives. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is also expected to play a significant role, one that likely has him making entreaties to Midwestern centrists from both parties.
Other Cabinet members and leading Democrats may jump into the fray, especially if things remain at an impasse come next fall. It is true that failure is not fatal, as the saying goes. Yet a failure this massive would be pretty close to terminal.
Legislative maneuvering is already at work, but Biden is trying to remain above the fray, much as he did while the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill moved through Congress during February. Both last week’s speech in Pittsburgh and Wednesday’s in Washington, with their invocations of “good-paying jobs,” are meant for the evening news, not legislative directors on Capitol Hill.
Much as Biden said in both cases that he welcomes both debate and compromise with Republicans, it is obvious that he is ready to bypass the GOP and appeal directly to the American people. Not a single Republican voted for the coronavirus relief bill, but the measure has approval from 72 percent of Americans. The infrastructure bill will be less straightforward — the centerpiece of the coronavirus relief bill was, after all, a check — but the Biden administration intends to sell it in much the same way, with popular appeals meant to shore up support among skittish legislators.
“We need to start seeing infrastructure through its effect on the lives of working people in America,” the president said during Wednesday’s remarks. That effect includes, in the White House’s conception of infrastructure needing repair, the wages paid to home health workers, who are frequently women of color earning as little as $10.95 per hour. It also includes the lack of internet in much of rural America and the impact on children of living near highways or attending schools where the drinking water contains lead.
For conservatives, that breadth is the problem. Politico estimates that only about $821 billion of the $2.3 trillion bill is “definitely infrastructure,” another $1 trillion is up for debate and $400 billion (the funds reserved to increase pay to home health aides) is “not even close to infrastructure.”
The plan is not yet a bill, but the outlines are clear enough for Republicans to attack with as much relish as they can muster. They can muster plenty. After the president first announced the infrastructure package last week, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, denounced it as the work of “the radical Left,” which he suggested had been “emboldened to hijack Congress' important work to push their extreme partisan agenda.”
Biden said on Wednesday that “debate is welcome” and that Republicans should offer their own proposals. But if the GOP believes — as it seems to — that the plan is a socialist giveaway, compromise is unlikely. Even Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, likely the most persuadable Republican in the upper chamber, has criticized the plan as lacking the hallmarks of bipartisanship. While that’s not a no vote, it is miles from a yes.
From the other end of the political spectrum have come the complaints of progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who has said that Biden’s plan is too small.
The White House recognizes that most Americans are to the left of Cruz and to the right of Ocasio-Cortez, and that the president appears to be working from the famous Clintonian observation that the American people are “operationally progressive and rhetorically conservative.” That’s why Biden’s speeches about the infrastructure bill include references to pipe fitters and welders, as well as warnings about China’s rise.
The question is whether enough members of his own party see both popular demand and political will coalescing around the forthcoming legislation.
Earlier this week, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that Democrats can use a process called budget reconciliation to pass the infrastructure bill with a simple majority. Some measures may fall out of the final bill, as happened with the increased federal minimum wage, which was included in the coronavirus relief bill until the parliamentarian ruled it did not meet reconciliation requirements.
A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called this week’s ruling “an important step forward,” describing reconciliation as a “key pathway.”
But using reconciliation presents risks of its own, since it amounts to a brute use of legislative force. Democrats can try to hold out hopes for genuine bipartisanship while also wielding reconciliation as a threat, but it is difficult to say whether that combination will compel any Republicans to come along.
For that matter, some Democrats may also balk at such heavy-handed tactics. “I’m not going to do it through reconciliation,” Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said earlier this month. Manchin, as conservative a Democrat as there is in Congress, represents a state with some of the worst infrastructure in the country, but also a state in which Donald Trump beat Biden by 40 points in last November’s election.
Manchin isn’t the only problem Democrat for Schumer and Biden to contend with. The other — at least for now — is Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who along with Manchin opposed the inclusion of the minimum wage provision in the coronavirus relief bill. Earlier this week, Sinema said she was opposed to ending the legislative filibuster, which many progressives believe is a hindrance to their agenda.
While her views on reconciliation aren’t clear, the filibuster, as now constituted, means 60 votes are needed in the Senate to pass most legislation. That vote threshold is precisely what the parliamentarian’s ruling removes, meaning that Sinema, like Manchin, could prove resistant to using that tactic to pass the infrastructure bill.
Sinema and Manchin don’t face reelection until 2024, giving each relative latitude to maneuver without necessarily fearing an electoral challenge in the near future.
The same cannot be said of House Democrats, for whom the 2022 midterms loom. And those Democrats know the midterms usually spell disaster for the party of the sitting president. Republicans made gains in 2020 House races, even winning some districts that Biden won. An infrastructure bill seen as a socialist boondoggle could complicate the prospects of moderate Democrats like Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Lauren Underwood of Illinois. Theirs are two of the 47 seats Republicans believe they can reclaim.
Pelosi has a little more room to maneuver than does Schumer, with seven more Democrats in her chamber than Republicans. But the House is also fundamentally less predictable than the Senate. An obvious problem is the Problem Solvers Caucus, a centrist coalition that plainly wants to have its say in the final infrastructure bill. Its members want Biden to lift the cap on state and local tax deductions that Trump put in place, but the president is reportedly unlikely to do so.
The caucus is headed by Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, whose district includes New York City suburbs and could thus benefit massively from the infrastructure part of the infrastructure bill, especially if it leads to major upgrades to Hudson River crossings. His calculation will be among the most difficult to make.
There are plenty of other potential pitfalls in the infrastructure plan, including its reliance on a higher corporate tax rate. An emphasis on green jobs could alienate Democrats in districts where traditional forms of energy extraction (i.e., oil and gas) are still a significant source of jobs.
Among these is Rep. Colin Allred, a Democrat representing the Dallas suburbs. The playbook against him and other centrist Democrats won't be new. In the case of Rep. Allred, that playbook featured, during his 2020 reelection campaign, accusations from the American Energy Alliance, a pro-carbon group, that he was “out of step with his district” and had become a member of the "extreme anti-energy" left, as symbolized by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. The coming midterms could see those attacks amplified and multiplied across the country. But will they work? They didn't against Rep. Allred, who beat his Republican challenger by six points.
All that is to say that Biden’s plan won’t stand for much unless Pelosi and Schumer can keep Democrats in line, while fishing for one or two Republican votes to satisfy, in the most generous terms, the notion of bipartisanship.
At the end of Wednesday’s speech, Biden was asked about bringing Republicans on board.
Clutching his black binder and leaning on the podium, he described how he’d tried to negotiate with Republicans on the coronavirus stimulus, only to see them make a counteroffer of $618 billion, about a third of what the White House had in mind.
“They didn’t move an inch” from that figure, Biden said.
So he passed the bill without them.
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