Democrats Are Locked in a Staring Contest Over Infrastructure

Don’t blink. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

Moderate Democrats want bipartisan bonafides and pork for their constituents. Progressives want green jobs and a bigger welfare state. And Republicans want to drink liberal tears. The $4 trillion question is this: Will the moderates team up with progressives to disappoint Republicans — or join Mitch McConnell in his quest to make Bernie Sanders severely depressed?

That is one way to summarize the current state of bipartisan infrastructure talks.

Here is another, somewhat more detailed synopsis: A group of ten senators — five Democrats and five Republicans — have agreed on the outlines of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. Only $579 billion of that sum would constitute new spending, while the rest would involve reallocating unspent coronavirus aid. That makes the bill’s total new investment in public goods about one-fourth as large as Joe Biden’s initial proposal. Meanwhile, unlike the president’s “American Jobs Plan,” the bipartisan compromise includes no significant funding for green infrastructure, and is not financed through progressive taxation. To the contrary, the proposal would reportedly be “paid for” by a combination of ramped-up IRS enforcement and taxes on electric vehicles. The logic of that tax is facially reasonable: Drivers of EVs are immune from the gas tax that currently funds highway maintenance in the U.S., even as they use (and thus erode) highways just the same as drivers of gas-powered cars. If an EV tax is not paired with investments in electric charging stations or other green infrastructure, however, then the net effect of the infrastructure bill could be to slow America’s transition off fossil fuels.

None of this troubles moderate Democrats much. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema want to secure “bipartisanship” merit badges and funding for specific projects within their states. Crafting a $1.2 trillion deal with their GOP colleagues is a sound means to that end. And yet, to get such a deal to Biden’s desk, the moderates will need 60 Senate votes. So far, they have five Republicans attached to their (unfinished) proposal, and two Democratic caucus members — Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — firmly against it. Meanwhile, a large number of liberal House and Senate Democrats have given Sinema and Manchin an ultimatum: Promise to support a subsequent, Democrat-only reconciliation bill that advances the president’s climate and social-welfare agendas, or we’ll vote against your bipartisan compromise. As Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin put the point, “Many members of the Democratic caucus want to have a clear understanding of what comes next as to whether or not a bipartisan bill will come with a total, 50 votes of Democratic support for reconciliation.”

The logic of the liberal Democrats’ position is straightforward. The party still has (at least) one more reconciliation bill in its quiver this year. If the moderates want to bank a bipartisan “win” that they (and Biden) can tout in campaign ads, then that’s fine. Democrats can just reverse every concession they give the GOP on taxes and spending in a subsequent reconciliation bill. In fact, such a two-step process might actually enable progressives to get more total public investment than they would in the absence of a bipartisan bill. After all, the supply of Manchin-approved taxes on the rich is finite. So, if Republicans give Democrats cover to finance conventional infrastructure with user fees for drivers (i.e., a tax hike on middle-class Americans), then the party would in theory be able to finance more overall spending before exhausting its moderates’ appetites for soaking the rich and increasing the deficit. In other words: There’s a way for every Democrat to win here! But only if Manchin and Sinema become dutiful partisans as soon as the bipartisan bill is passed.

And there’s the rub.

It’s not clear that Manchin and Sinema (or various moderate House Democrats) are all that invested in Biden’s plans for greening the economy, spending $400 billion on at-home-care for the elderly, extending the American Rescue Plan’s monthly child allowance, establishing universal prekindergarten, or the myriad other initiatives contained within Biden’s $4 trillion economic agenda. If the moderates’ top-priorities for new spending in their home states become decoupled from Biden’s broader agenda — because liberals helped them win those gains in a bipartisan infrastructure bill — then the centrists might have the upper hand in all subsequent intra-Democratic negotiations. By contrast, if Manchin and Sinema are forced to choose between walking away from a trifecta with little to nothing for their constituents — or acquiescing to a package far more liberal than they’d like — they might well bend the knee to Bernie Sanders.

Or at least, so the lawmakers’ friends seem to think. As Politico reports:

Will Sinema and Manchin say no to reconciliation if Democrats reject this proposal? Schumer needs every Democrat, so if the party ditches this bipartisan agreement and moves for the fast-tracking budget tool, the pair could enact revenge and sink the entire shebang. People who know them both, however, are skeptical that they would. The bill will be packed with money for their states.

For this reason, liberals want Sinema and Manchin to provide an ironclad vow of support for a future reconciliation bill before progressives vote for a bipartisan package and, thereby, forfeit their primary source of leverage over the centrists. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN Sunday, “I don’t know how we can possibly sell [the compromise bill] … to our caucus unless we know there is more to come.” Majority Leader Schumer, for his part, plans to initiate the budget reconciliation process on Wednesday — and start advancing a Democrats-only spending bill through Congress come July.

But Sinema is reluctant to pledge support for legislation that does not yet exist. And Manchin isn’t ready to endorse Democrats using the reconciliation process to pass anything.

Republicans see an opportunity in this schism. If liberals won’t provide moderate Democrats with the votes necessary for passing a bipartisan bill, perhaps McConnell will direct his minions to cover the gap. Such a gambit might come as a surprise from a minority leader who, in his own words, is “100 percent” focused “on stopping this new administration.” But there’s a realpolitik rationale for handing Biden a bipartisan victory, according to Politico:

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) surmised Monday that if a bipartisan package comes to fruition, the only remaining ways for Democrats to pay for a second bill on social spending programs are tax increases — too toxic to pursue… “It’ll be awful hard to get those moderate Democrats to be for that,” Thune said. “The stars are kind of lining up for an infrastructure bill. And if you do do something bipartisan on that, then I think doing something partisan on reconciliation — in some ways, with certain Democrats — it gets a lot harder.”

One precedent for the legislative path that Republicans are mulling is the recently enacted Endless Frontier Act. That law, which increased federal investment in science and semiconductor manufacturing (so as to bolster America’s position in its rivalry with China), attracted Bernie Sanders’s opposition — which did not matter, since 19 Republicans backed it, and it passed with 68 votes. In theory, even if liberal Democrats rebelled against a bipartisan infrastructure bill en masse, GOP lawmakers could rush in, secure a few more concessions from the mods, and then help Manchin & Co. get to 60, even with much of the Democratic caucus voting in opposition.

All this said, the “Republicans and moderates team up against the liberals” scenario looks far-fetched. Opposition to a bipartisan bill, without assurances on a subsequent one, is not limited to the far-left flank of Schumer’s caucus. It’s the mainstream position among Senate Democrats, voiced by everyone from Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono to Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey. Meanwhile, a majority of Pelosi’s caucus would be unlikely to support an infrastructure package that attracted widespread Democratic opposition in the Senate; and thus, Pelosi would be unlikely to allow a vote on such a measure.

The GOP’s shit-stirring is therefore a sideshow. The main event is a staring contest between moderates and liberals. The latter can’t pass anything without Manchin and Sinema’s votes. The former can’t secure federal dollars for their states without the latter’s cooperation. The moderates want to downsize the president’s ambitions, and render it maximally palatable to their friends at the Chamber of Commerce. The liberals think Biden’s $4 trillion agenda already represents a bitter compromise with business interests. Both factions are waiting for the other to blink. And Republicans are primarily trying to keep the staredown going; the longer it lasts, the less time Democrats will have to pass new laws before midterm season begins. The legislative calendar is a scarce resource. The Senate has only six more workweeks before summer’s end.

Democrats Are Locked In Staring Contest Over Infrastructure