Former President Donald Trump released a statement on Saturday threatening to withhold his endorsement from any Republican who supports the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. Hours later, 18 Republican senators voted to advance the infrastructure package anyway.
It was just a procedural vote (the Senate hasn’t voted yet on passage of the bill, as of Monday afternoon). But the chain of events illustrates that at least when it comes to infrastructure, the former president’s threats don’t seem to carry the weight they once did.
This was on stark display on Fox News on Sunday morning as one of the Republican senators who voted to advance the infrastructure bill, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, went on Maria Bartiromo’s show and was castigated for not toeing the line.
“Are you betraying the Republican base?” Bartiromo asked Cramer to open the interview. He responded by arguing that the bill addresses important national priorities.
“It’s not just infrastructure — it’s roads and bridges specifically. In addition to that, there’s ports, waterways, railroads, airports, broadband, all of which are critical to the movement of goods and services around the country and around the world,” Cramer said. “We couldn’t get North Dakota soybeans to South Korea if we didn’t have ports in the Pacific Northwest. and we certainly couldn’t get pasta in New York without trucks getting the wheat from the field to the bins and then off to the mills and the factories.”
Bartiromo later pressed Cramer to specifically address Trump’s threat. Trump said on Saturday that “Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill will be used against the Republican Party in the upcoming elections in 2022 and 2024. It will be very hard for me to endorse anyone foolish enough to vote in favor of this deal.”
But Cramer, who is up for reelection in 2024, didn’t back down.
“He didn’t give one reason why it’s a bad deal, other than it’s Joe Biden’s [bill] ... I think he’s wrong on this issue,” he said.
Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer on Trump's statement opposing the bipartisan infrastructure bill: "He didn't give one reason why it's a bad deal, other than it's Joe Biden's [bill] ... I think he's wrong on this issue." pic.twitter.com/DTHBNn7dbL— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 8, 2021
It should be noted that Cramer is known as a fierce Trumpist, not a Mitt Romney-type moderate who occasionally breaks with the former president. He campaigned in 2018 as the most MAGA-friendly candidate in the North Dakota race, and after getting elected ended up being among the top 10 Republican senators in terms of reliably voting in step with Trump.
In February, Cramer voted against Trump’s conviction for inciting the January 6 insurrection following his second impeachment trial, then mocked Democrats for impeaching the former president in the first place, saying, “Why are Democrats so concerned about having [Trump] on the ballot 4 years from now?”
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) talks to reporters and mockingly says, "why are Democrats so concerned about having [Trump] on the ballot 4 years from now?"— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 10, 2021
(Maybe it's because he tried to overthrow democracy?) pic.twitter.com/BXD9HIgiY9
But Cramer’s thinking on Trump now seems to have evolved: Satiating the leader of his party is no longer the only political consideration worth weighing. And he’s far from alone.
Other Trumpy Republicans who voted to close debate on the infrastructure bill — a necessary step toward its expected passage this week — include Lindsey Graham (SC), Chuck Grassley (IA), and John Hoeven (ND). Meanwhile, 29 Republicans voted against allowing the bill to proceed.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has become a frequent target of Trump’s ire after McConnell came out against his efforts to overturn his election loss to Biden, voted in favor of the infrastructure bill proceeding. Last week McConnell characterized the legislation, which includes $550 billion in new spending over five years, as “an excellent chance” for “a bipartisan success story for the country.”
But Trump, unsurprisingly, is not interested in “bipartisan success stories.” The irony is that when Trump was president, he could have theoretically been the one to have such a success story: During his administration, empty promises of infrastructure legislation were bandied about so often that “infrastructure week” became a punchline. But now that he’s out of office, Trump is urging Republicans to hold off even longer.
“Whether it’s the House or Senate, think twice before you approve this terrible deal. Republicans should wait until after the Midterms when they will gain all the strength they’ll need to make a good deal,” Trump said in his Saturday statement, without specifying what “a good deal” would be to him.
Senate Republicans decided bipartisanship was in their interest this one time
While infrastructure is proving to be an area where Senate Republicans are willing to break with Trump, it’s too early to say whether this is the start of a trend.
For one, some of the 18 Republican senators who voted to close debate on the infrastructure bill may still end up ultimately voting against it. But ultimately the votes are expected to be there for the bill’s passage, meaning that in this case Republican senators seem to have calculated that doing something for their constituents and demonstrating that the Senate isn’t totally broken is worth the tradeoff of handing Biden a major bipartisan win.
That doesn’t mean that it’ll be smooth sailing for Biden’s legislative agenda heading forward, however. McConnell, after all, said in May that “one hundred percent of my focus is standing up to this administration,” and with Republicans entrenched against any sort of voting rights legislation, it’s unclear what major policy areas if any could be ripe for bipartisan agreement after infrastructure.
It’s also easier for Senate Republicans to inch away from Trump than it is for GOP House members. While characterizing the infrastructure bill as “one of the most significant steps to date by elected Republicans to defy Mr. Trump,” the New York Times’ Luke Broadwater and Emily Cochrane note that Republicans like Cramer who aren’t up for reelection in 2022 aren’t quite feeling the heat. But for House members, a sour statement from the former president could spell serious trouble for their political futures.
The vast majority of Republicans are opposed to the legislation. House Republicans are as tightly bound to Mr. Trump as ever, with many continuing to support his election lies and conspiracy theories about the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol. And with the approach of the 2022 elections, members of his party will have less and less room to maneuver away from a figure whom their base still reveres.
But whether it’s an aberration or the beginning of an era in which Republicans are less scared about incurring Trump’s wrath, the fact remains that for the first time in many years, a significant number of GOP elected officials are voting in favor of a major piece of legislation that will provide their constituents with something beyond tax cuts aimed disproportionately toward the wealthy. That’s something to celebrate.