Opinion by Lanhee J. Chen
After many failed efforts, it may finally be infrastructure week in America. A bipartisan group of US Senators has agreed to a roughly $1.2 trillion package of infrastructure reforms that President Joe Biden said he will support. The package has a long way to go — including more detailed discussions of the specific “pay-fors” or funding mechanisms for the reforms — but the fact that the President has weighed in with his support increases the likelihood that success is on the horizon.
Americans should be excited about these developments. During a time of extreme partisan polarization, when, according to Gallup, just one in four people approve of Congress, the news that members of both parties have come together to support critical priorities should be celebrated. It’s a bit of throwback to the time when bipartisanship wasn’t a dirty word and productivity was valued over ideology. As Biden noted in a press conference today, “This reminds me of the days when we used to get an awful lot done up in the United States Congress.”
Indeed, the infrastructure deal is a rare win-win for both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, DC. Both sides stand to gain some political advantage from getting this deal through Congress and onto Biden’s desk for his signature.
But there is opposition bubbling up from both Republicans, who believe it best to deny Biden a legislative victory ahead of next year’s midterm elections, and Democrats, who want Biden to go bigger and press for up to $6 trillion in progressive reforms that extend far beyond improvements to bridges, roads and physical infrastructure.
For Democrats, the reasons to support this package should be obvious. Legislative wins have been few and far between for Biden since he used only Democrat votes to pass a $1.9 trillion spending package in the spring. Since then, efforts to pass a January 6 commission and federal voting rights legislation have failed after facing Republican opposition.
It’s unclear where else Biden could look for support from the GOP in Congress beyond infrastructure issues. Bipartisan negotiators on policing reform have put forth a framework for legislation, but much work still remains to be done. And a bipartisan win is important for Biden personally, given the image he cultivated during his campaign as someone who would reach across the political divide to find common ground on challenges that face the country.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has argued that the infrastructure deal will not be considered until a larger set of progressive reforms that Biden and Democrats have supported is passed by the Senate first. This is a recipe for failure. Insisting on the passage of what Biden calls his “human infrastructure” package (investments in child care and paid leave) first will torpedo any likelihood of Republican support for a package of physical infrastructure reforms.
Republicans, for their part, should recognize that there are advantages that come from working with Democrats and Biden to pass this package of changes. Namely, voters will look kindly upon efforts to make badly needed infrastructure improvements.
Ten Republican Senators will need to support the compromise to get reforms through the regular legislative process. Five GOP Senators — Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Mitt Romney of Utah — participated in negotiations over the deal. So, the support of an additional five will be needed to get this package across the finish line.
The difficult sticking point for the infrastructure package has been — and will continue to be — how it will be financed. Republicans have argued that tax increases are a red line they are unwilling to cross. Fortunately, the proposed sources of funding issued by the bipartisan group that negotiated the package does not include tax hikes but rather focuses on other sources of money, including more aggressive enforcement by the IRS to close the so-called “tax gap” and the formation of new public-private partnerships.
The bipartisan deal may be of greatest political relevance to the 15 Senate Republicans who may run for reelection in 2022. (A total of 20 GOP Senators are up for reelection in 2022, but five — including Portman, who has been central to the bipartisan infrastructure discussions — have said they are not running next year.)
Some have argued that Republicans are better off politically if they stonewall all of Biden’s agenda and deny him a legislative win. At this point, it’s hard to see how standing in the way of a bipartisan agreement will benefit Republicans, particularly those who are either running for reelection in 2022 or Republicans who are running for open seats in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
In fact, infrastructure reform is the rare example of an issue where there can be wins on both sides of the aisle. Even Republican incumbents stand to win if they can demonstrate they did their part in bringing infrastructure spending home to their districts and states.
There are still many steps between now and final passage of a bipartisan infrastructure package. And while it’s not exactly the policy that either Republicans or Democrats would have drafted alone, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this case. They should take the win that is in front of them and give the American people faith that legislators can legislate together again.
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