Another sticking point is how to pay for it all. Biden has called for increasing corporate taxes, which would reverse a core component of the Trump tax cut signed into law in 2017. It’s hard to imagine that Republicans would agree to this. When I asked Senator Rick Scott of Florida about the best way to fund expanded infrastructure, he was adamant: “I completely oppose raising taxes to do it.”
Yet the Republicans have some cover if they’re willing to take it. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it’s open to raising the federal gas tax, which has remained the same (18.4 cents per gallon) since 1993. At the very least, such an increase could finance some of the road improvements both parties envision. Trouble is, the White House doesn’t want to raise the gas tax. When Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg floated the idea at his Senate confirmation hearing in January, his spokesperson quickly walked it back. “The president has been very committed to the idea that we’re not going to raise taxes on people earning less than $400,000 a year,” Buttigieg told me. “So that’s the starting point that needs to be held in mind.” (Many Democrats don’t buy that reasoning. As Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon, who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, told me, a gas tax is like a user fee, borne only by the people who drive.)
As seems to be true with a lot these days, whether an infrastructure bill will pass and in what form will likely hinge on Manchin. Not only is he a key swing vote within the party, but he also chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which will consider pieces of the package. Manchin says he wants the Democrats to make every effort to produce a bipartisan measure—“I am not going to get on a bill that cuts out [Republicans] completely before we start trying,” he told Axios. But he has also said that he favors raising taxes to pay for what figures to be a gargantuan government investment. That condition would seem to rule out Republican support. Manchin’s position is even spongier than it might appear. He is not making Republican buy-in a nonnegotiable condition. Nor has he ruled out “reconciliation,” the parliamentary maneuver that would enable the Democrats to pass an infrastructure bill without a single Republican vote. All he’s saying is that he wants Democrats to work hard to corral Republicans. Manchin, in other words, has given himself enough space to land anywhere he chooses, maximizing his leverage as negotiations get under way.
Read: What the media are missing about Joe Manchin
One sweetener that could make an infrastructure deal more palatable is the possible revival of “earmarks,” specific projects that lawmakers insert in a bill and steer toward their states and districts. For years, earmarks was a kind of epithet in Washington. Lawmakers used them to lavish money on projects of dubious merit but that would enhance their reelection chances. (A “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska emerged as perhaps the most notorious symbol of wasteful spending.) The abuses mounted, and Congress banned earmarks in 2011. But there is a strong appetite to bring them back—under the anodyne title “community-project funding.” Lawmakers say earmarks will be capped and publicized so as to prevent their misuse. Behind the return of earmarks is the recognition that without them, Congress has had a far tougher time making deals on complicated legislation. Many think that earmarks could be an especially powerful inducement in an infrastructure bill, allowing lawmakers to take credit for projects they made happen. “It would probably help us move bills,” Senator Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, told me.