The much-ballyhooed bipartisan infrastructure agreement was always a shaky proposition. When President Joe Biden announced the accord last month—“We have a deal,” the beaming president proclaimed outside the White House, flanked by 10 beaming senators—all the negotiators had agreed to was an outline, a three-page sketch of how to spend $1.2 trillion on roads, bridges, rail, and broadband, and a list of “options” of how to pay for it. They hadn’t figured out any of the details, much less written an actual bill.
So it wasn’t a big surprise that the first test vote on the infrastructure agreement failed in the Senate today. Republicans blocked debate on the proposal, defying a bid by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to hurry negotiators along by bringing the unfinished bill to the floor. Even those Republican senators who have spent weeks defending the deal voted in opposition, upset at what they considered to be Schumer’s heavy-handed tactics. The setback does not necessarily doom the agreement; Schumer could still bring up the proposal again if and when it’s ready, which senators in both parties say could be as soon as next week. But the failure makes it more likely that Democrats move on to their top priority: the passage of a far larger, $3.5 trillion budget package that represents the bulk of Biden’s economic agenda. That would surely be fine with progressives, and probably with the White House as well.
Biden wants the bipartisan infrastructure agreement so he can deliver on his campaign promise that he would be a dealmaker who could bring the warring parties together. That’s why the president made the audacious gamble of pursuing, simultaneously, the modest bipartisan bill with Republicans and the gigantic, legacy-building legislation with Democrats—the legislative equivalent of having your cake and eating it too. The two proposals are moving on separate but somewhat intersecting paths in the Senate: The bipartisan bill would be subject to the filibuster and thus require at least 10 Republican votes to pass, while Democrats are pursuing their broader expansion of social programs through the process of budget reconciliation that needs only a majority of 51 (including the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris). That second package includes such big-ticket items as paid family leave, universal pre-kindergarten, augmented Medicare benefits, policies to tackle climate change, and an extension of the child tax credit. Passage of both would represent a towering achievement by the standards of modern Washington, where grand ambitions of transformative policies usually go to die. The risk, of course, is that both attempts collapse, and Biden is left with only the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to show for his all-important first year in office.
Republicans had made their own bet in striking the infrastructure deal with Democrats and the White House. They thought that by agreeing to a limited amount of new spending on projects that would benefit their constituents—everyone loves roads and bridges—they could appease moderate Democrats like Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, peeling them away from Biden’s far more ambitious spending plans. Backing a small bill would give Republicans cover to oppose the rest of Biden’s agenda without being labeled as obstructionist. The ensuing failure of the bigger reconciliation package would anger and depress the Democrats’ progressive base, resulting in a political win for Republicans. That was the idea, at least. But Manchin and Sinema have confounded those plans by going along—at least so far—with Biden’s dual-track strategy, keeping alive the president’s hopes of enacting what would be the largest investment in government programs in decades. Neither has balked at the proposed $3.5 trillion price tag, which is itself a significant reduction of an initial offering from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who chairs the Budget Committee.
The infrastructure agreement has divided Republicans more than Democrats, exposing just how difficult it is to get the modern GOP to coalesce behind any fiscal plan not named “tax cuts.” Conservatives, already opposed to giving Biden even the smallest share of a legislative victory, have rallied against a proposal to pay for the infrastructure spending in part by beefing up the IRS so that it can collect more unpaid taxes from the wealthy and from businesses. (The Treasury Department has pegged the overall tax gap at $7 trillion over a decade, although neither party has proposed empowering the IRS to close it entirely.) This is the lowest of hanging fruit when it comes to tax policy: Rather than raise tax rates, the senators are proposing merely to have the government enforce existing tax laws more stringently. But it’s still too much for the right, which sees the IRS as a bureaucratic bogeyman. Under pressure from Republicans, the bipartisan group dropped the tax-enforcement plan and is struggling to find other acceptable pots of money to replace it.
As much as Biden would love Republican votes for the infrastructure plan, he wants the roads and bridges even more. If the GOP senators won’t seal the deal they struck or dawdle too long in finishing it, Democrats are already planning to take the bipartisan infrastructure framework and add it to their own $3.5 trillion measure. That’s the leverage Schumer is using by forcing an early vote on the bipartisan proposal; Democrats don’t want to repeat the mistake they made in President Barack Obama’s first year in office, when they allowed Republicans to drag out negotiations over a health-care bill for months and squandered the new president’s political capital.
Schumer has said he wants to pass both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution teeing up the broader Democratic budget package before the Senate leaves for its annual August recess. Under the premise that little in Washington gets done without a deadline, the majority leader set the initial procedural vote on the infrastructure agreement for today even though Republicans begged for more time. “It is not an attempt to jam anyone,” Schumer insisted this morning. But his message was clear. If Republicans hold out too long on the agreement they negotiated, the Democrats will go it alone.
Key to this backup plan is the same pair of moderate Democratic senators who have held sway all year in the closely divided chamber: Manchin and Sinema. They forced Biden to pursue a bipartisan deal on infrastructure, and he did. With today’s vote, they will see—and can tell their constituents—that it was the Republicans who stopped it from advancing.
If Manchin and Sinema stick with him, Biden can pass the bulk of his economic agenda with Democratic votes and then go around the country and claim, with at least some credibility, that a major piece of it was bipartisan. The reconciliation package still has a long way to go, and there are plenty of ways it could all fall apart too. But as the president demonstrated after the enactment of the American Rescue Plan, which passed on a party-line vote, he does not define bipartisanship by the final vote total.
Bipartisanship in politics, like infrastructure, is a hazy concept, its parameters subject to interpretation. If Democrats incorporate the compromise framework into their own bill and pass it over the howls of the GOP, Biden won’t get the bipartisan bill-signing that once represented the true test of cross-party collaboration. But Republicans will already have given him the gift he wanted when they joined him outside the White House to announce their agreement last month. That tableau of smiling senators, half Republicans and half Democrats, was all the bipartisanship Biden needed.