Watching Joe Biden’s happy gloating about Senate passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Tuesday, I had a fairly cynical reaction. Biden seems to be assuming he will get credit for his involvement in this achievement, which in turn will retroactively validate his 2020 campaign pledge to work across party lines to get stuff done. Per ABC News:
Biden praised the bipartisan negotiators, touching on themes from his candidacy — the idea that this 36-year veteran of the Senate could reinvigorate the bipartisan cooperation of an era gone by.
“I want to thank the group of senators, Democrats and Republicans, for doing what they told me they would do. The death of this legislation was mildly premature as reported. They said they were willing to work in a bipartisan manner. And I want to thank them for keeping their word. That’s just what they did,” Biden said.
I’m glad the president feels all warm and fuzzy inside, but if he thinks the bipartisan glow will last until the 2024 election, he’s wrong. Indeed, the one thing we can be certain of is that congressional Republicans, having checked the bipartisanship “box,” will return to their characteristic obstructionism henceforth, citing the infrastructure deal as the last train out of deficit-land, and contrasting future partisan Democratic legislation with the bill that even Mitch McConnell could bless. Indeed, Politico is already reporting that it “remains unclear what other agenda items Republicans will be willing to collaborate on,” and “even advocates for bipartisanship are skeptical about future deals.”
The questionable nature of the achievement this bill represented flows in part from the fact that everything in it could have been enacted, and maybe even improved, had its content simply been nestled into the upcoming budget reconciliation bill that Democrats expect to pass on a strict party-line vote. In effect, Democrats chose to share the credit with Republicans for legislation they could have made exclusively their own.
The only logical rationale for doing that (other than the pleasure some take in bipartisanship for its own sake) is that passing the all-important reconciliation bill requires the votes of Democratic centrists like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and they insisted on making the infrastructure bill a bipartisan project. Indeed, the fear that Manchin and Sinema might nonetheless oppose or gut the reconciliation bill caused Nancy Pelosi (backed by House progressives) to refuse to bring the infrastructure bill to the House floor until the Senate has cleared the reconciliation bill. But in any event, if making the infrastructure bill bipartisan was necessary to get the larger and more important reconciliation bill over the finish line, it was worth it (depending on future developments).
But an honest look at the tradeoffs involved requires considering possible lost opportunities. If Democrats and Republicans both needed to pass one big bipartisan bill this year, for separate but mutually beneficial reasons, might it have been better had it involved matters that could not be passed via reconciliation — matters that required bipartisanship?
You don’t have to search very hard to find them: Just look at some of the big progressive policy goals already discarded from reconciliation bills because they would fall prey to the Senate’s Byrd Rule governing germaneness to budget legislation. There’s the $15 minimum wage; a path to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants; and most of all voting rights.
Yes, it’s very unlikely that the ten Senate Republicans needed to pass legislation outside reconciliation would go for such Democratic priorities. But on the other hand, a higher minimum wage polls extremely well, even among Republicans, and the current labor shortage makes it less controversial. Not that long ago, comprehensive immigration reform was a completely bipartisan project despite hard-core conservative (and then Trumpian) opposition. And the same is true of the more modest forms of voting-rights legislation, like restoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the form that it had when it was unanimously extended for 25 years by the Senate in 2006 (with George W. Bush signing the extension).
All three of these policy areas are intensely important to Democratic constituencies, and they expose differences both within the GOP and between Republican elected officials and their voters. Given what’s happening around the country right now, voting rights are arguably a priority of existential importance to Democrats, certainly as compared to infrastructure investments that do not require bipartisan legislation. Did Biden and congressional Democratic leaders give serious consideration to putting Republican feet to the fire in these other areas before making infrastructure the subject of the one big bipartisan gambit of 2021? I certainly don’t know, but suspect they took the path of least resistance.
Since it’s Manchin and Sinema and their silent partners among Democratic senators who are insisting on maintaining the power of the minority to block legislation via the filibuster, I’d say their power over their party and the country is already far too excessive. They should have been asked to use their leverage with the GOP to exact support for something really special. Given the odds of Republicans breaking up the Democratic governing trifecta next year, the window for getting anything progressive done in Congress may already be closing. The infrastructure deal probably isn’t a prize worth cheering more than once.