The Infrastructure Waltz

June 27, 2021

Dear Readers,

Back in early March, when the world was young, the Biden administration had just gotten a massively popular $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill through Congress, an initiative it called the American Rescue Plan. On the Hill, the bill had passed the House and Senate with only Democratic votes through the alternative legislative process called reconciliation, which cannot be filibustered. Every Republican in both chambers voted against it. (And two House Democrats opposed it too.)

Relative to the Obama years, this seemed like a salutary result. During the process, while never disavowing a wish for Republicans to have epiphanies and see the wisdom of President Biden’s agenda, the administration appeared to recognize that this would not happen here on earth. The experience of the Obama years, after all, had been that Republicans would scramble to prevent anything from being accomplished, even reversing their own previously-held positions when President Obama or his Democratic allies got behind them. The canonical example of this is when Mitch McConnell in 2012 shot down his own idea (a bluff, in reality) to resolve the perennial fights over the debt ceiling, objecting to an ordinary vote on the proposal and saying “matters of this level of controversy always require 60 votes.”

The Biden team and Democratic leaders in Congress seemed to understand this dynamic. For the Covid relief bill, they had effectively rounded up enough Democratic votes to get it accomplished. And crucially, they had obtained a ruling from the Senate parliamentarian allowing them to use the reconciliation process for a second time during this fiscal year.

The next item on their agenda that could practically use this route was ‘infrastructure’—a pair of massive initiatives the White House refers to as the American Families Plan and the American Jobs Plan and associated tax changes to theoretically pay for them.1 For a while, so much policy was expected to be packed into the ‘infrastructure’ bill that people joked about what, if anything, was not ‘infrastructure.’

But whatever plans the White House and Congressional leaders may have had to rely on Democrats alone to pass such a bill, they came crashing to a halt with the intervention of Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. It’s always been a bit nebulous to me whether Senator Manchin acted alone at first, but whether alone or with allies, he made himself the spokesman for the position that bipartisanship was the sine qua non of ‘infrastructure’ passing. It wasn’t that Manchin wanted specific changes to the plan, although he sometimes said it cost too much, or even movement on other issues he considered important; he just wanted Republicans to vote for it—whatever that took.

Manchin’s stand deprived Democrats of the 50 votes they needed in the Senate to pass an ‘infrastructure’ reconciliation bill, and so—it appears—a plan was hatched to have two bills. One ‘infrastructure’ bill would be bipartisan and able to pass with 60 votes, satisfying Manchin’s stated desire for Republican collaboration, and would include essentially whatever a group of ten Republicans might approve. The other bill would be a reconciliation bill, would cover some portion of the balance of policy items that Republicans reject, and would earn the support of a mollified Manchin, any Democratic allies he may have, and the rest of the caucus too. An extended process of negotiating with various Republicans got underway.

The pursuit of this Rube Goldberg mechanism has led to some considerable awkwardness. When the White House announced its deal for an infrastructure bill, it had only a gang of ten Senators, five Republicans and five Democrats, appear at the press conference. That’s five Republicans short of the minimum number needed to pass a bill with 60 votes in today’s Senate. Plus, more Senate Republicans might be needed if the ‘bipartisan’ measure started losing Democratic support from the left—something that had looked like to happen because the Republicans did not want any climate policy in the bill. It was possible, though unlikely, that more Republicans were waiting in the wings to announce their support, but who were they? No one could say, and they still can’t.

It all made Democrats on both sides of the Hill very nervous. In the House, it wasn’t clear that the bipartisan measure could pass at all unless there was a guarantee that the reconciliation bill would be passed too. “The House isn’t going to pass the gang thing if it thinks that’s the only bite at the apple,” one Democratic aide told me. The progressives were worried about getting rolled.

Responding to these concerns, the day before the deal was publicly announced, Speaker Pelosi announced that the House would not vote on the bipartisan bill until both bills had passed the Senate. An apparently exasperated Senator Schumer told a reporter that night that each of the bills depended on the other:

Asked over text why this was, a Schumer aide responded with a gif from The Office:

The feeling of Democrats on the Hill was that the bills were only going to get done together; they were contingent on one another. However, according to the folkways of DC, this was a truth that President Biden himself was not permitted to make explicit. When he did—telling a reporter that if the bipartisan bill came to his desk unaccompanied by a reconciliation bill, he wouldn’t sign it—he was treated to a number of flustered responses from Republicans and issued a clean up statement over the weekend.

What’s gotten lost in this whole tangle, if you ask me, is the fundamental insight discussed at the beginning. Republicans are not likely to support anything the Democrats want to do in sufficient numbers to overcome a filibuster. To my way of thinking, the bipartisan bill process is interesting as a scheme to overcome Senator Manchin’s objections (by appearing to give collaboration across the aisle the old college try), but likely a pretty doomed scheme one if you’re actually trying to wrangle enough Republicans actually get 60 votes. At some point then, by my lights, the administration’s and leadership’s focus ought to shift to securing Senator Manchin’s vote on the reconciliation bill, while gracefully letting the bipartisan deal meet its inevitable fate. I wonder, is that ever going to happen?

1

A general consensus holds that a January 6th Commission and the Democrats’ voting rights bill both could not be enacted using the reconciliation process because they’re not primarily budgetary in nature.