Infrastructure has long been held up in Washington as one of a dwindling few issues on which there can be bipartisan agreement. As Congress gets to work on negotiating an infrastructure bill and President Joe Biden touts his American Jobs Plan, Republican senators emphasized the potential for a bipartisan deal on Sunday.
Of course, they differed with Biden and Democrats over the scope of what should be included in the bill and how to pay for it.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), a moderate Republican and part of the Gang of 10, said members of both parties have been meeting frequently, and that he believes a bipartisan agreement can be reached. The Gang of 10 are Republicans who worked with Democrats on the Covid-19 relief bill, though no compromise was reached, and whose votes are necessary in order to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster.
“There’s a way forward here, if the White House is willing to work with us,” he told Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press”.
Portman said he disagreed with raising the corporate tax rate — a key part of the Biden plan to pay for the infrastructure bill — and criticized the size of Biden’s plan, saying only about 20 percent of the proposed new spending went to traditional infrastructure spending and could be afforded through the mechanisms he favors. Instead of raising the corporate tax rate, Portman proposed public-private partnerships, user fees such as the gas tax, and repurposing state and local funding from the Covid-19 relief package for infrastructure.
And therein lies the issue — Republicans portray Biden and Democrats as negotiating in bad faith if they refuse to abandon central components of the plan, including raising corporate taxes and expanding federal investment in green job creation and health care. (For more details on Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, read Vox’s Ella Nilsen’s explainer.)
Across the Sunday shows, Republican Sens. John Barrasso, Bill Cassidy, and Susan Collins all emphasized that any bipartisan deal can only focus on the roads and bridges that make up a typical surface transportation reauthorization bill. They say the price tag, and any tax increase, are non-starters.
Speaking to Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week,” Barrasso said Republicans’ counteroffer — a $568 billion plan from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), which is about a quarter of what Democrats want to spend — can be a reasonable starting point for negotiations. But for all of the talk of bipartisanship, his assessment of Biden’s plan was largely negative.
“It’s the trillions and trillions of dollars of reckless spending,” Barrasso said, continuing:
When I look at this, this is a staggering amount of spending, like someone with a new credit card. And these are for things that we don’t necessarily need, we certainly can’t afford, but they’re going to delight the liberal left of the party ... It’s almost creating an addiction to spending.
Collins, another key moderate, also painted the infrastructure negotiations as an ultimatum for Biden while disagreeing with core parts of his plan, including raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent.
She did not offer an alternative for how to pay for the infrastructure bill.
“This is going to be a test for Joe Biden. The Joe Biden that I knew in the Senate was always interested in negotiation,” Collins said. “This is going to be a test on whether President Biden is truly interested in bipartisanship. If he is, we can get there on the core infrastructure package. And by that, it means roads, bridges, highways, rail, waterways, and of course, broadband.”
Does Biden need bipartisanship?
On the Democratic side, White House chief of staff Ron Klain doubled down on an emerging idea within the Biden White House — that bipartisanship means support of the majority of Americans, not Republicans in Congress.
By that measure, Biden’s plan is bipartisan. A CBS News/YouGov poll from late April found that 58 percent of people surveyed approved of the infrastructure plan, A Politico/Morning Consult poll from early April found that 65 percent of voters, including 42 percent of Republicans, support raising the corporate tax rate to fund Biden’s infrastructure plan.
“The proposals the president’s put forward have broad support,” Klain said on CBS News’ “Face The Nation.” “They have broad support in the country. They have support from Republican governors, Republican mayors. I think what we’ll have to see is whether or not Republicans in Washington join the rest of America in broadly supporting these common sense ideas.”
Other key Democrats, including Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to praise the bill, including its inclusion of “soft infrastructure” like research and development, and its funding mechanisms. Yellen committed to ensuring the bill is paid for, highlighting the administration’s proposals to raise taxes on those earning over $400,000 and on corporations.
Doing so would necessitate removing some of the tax breaks based in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — a Republican bill passed without the support of a single Democrat.
Of course, Democrats could take the same approach Republicans did in 2017, and that they used to pass their March Covid-19 relief bill — budget reconciliation, a process in which a filibuster can be bypassed in the Senate for bills that are budgetary in nature. If — and it’s a big if — Democrats can stick together on the final version of Biden’s plan, they do not actually need Republican support, for all of the bluster around bipartisanship.
As Vox’s Ella Nilsen explains, Democrats could pass their entire package — potentially both infrastructure and Biden’s child care and health care bill, through budget reconciliation for the 2022 fiscal year. They could pass multiple budget reconciliation bills this year, breaking up their packages into parts, if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is successful in lobbying the Senate parliamentarian to invoke an arcane rule that allows for up to three reconciliation attempts per year. Or, they could pass a bipartisan bill with Republican support on the parts of infrastructure they agree on, and then use budget reconciliation to pass the elements that Republicans are not on board with.
Although Biden, as Senate Republicans are quick to note, was a famed compromiser while in the Senate, his speeches as president often make references to President Franklin Roosevelt — known for big government rather than bipartisanship. If Biden is taking his election as a mandate to expand government, in the vein of his preferred predecessor, then including Republicans in his plans is less important than getting them passed in the first place.
“In another era when our democracy was tested, Franklin Roosevelt reminded us, in America, we do our part,” Biden said in his speech Wednesday night, in which he made direct appeals to Senate Republicans. “We all do our part. That’s all I’m asking.”