Senate Republicans are mulling support for a massive amount of new spending on infrastructure — in part because they think it’ll help kill President Joe Biden’s liberal agenda.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to tip his hand on whether he supports the bipartisan negotiations on Biden’s plan for roads and bridges that are being led by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). But a growing number of Senate Republicans are betting that if a deal is reached on that sort of physical infrastructure, Democrats won’t have the votes needed to pass the rest of Biden’s “soft infrastructure” priorities, such as child care and clean energy.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) surmised Monday that if a bipartisan package comes to fruition, the only remaining ways for Democrats to pay for a second bill on social spending programs are tax increases — too toxic to pursue. Democrats can pass a spending bill with only Democratic votes, but they need all 50 of their members to be on board.
“It’ll be awful hard to get those moderate Democrats to be for that,” Thune said. “The stars are kind of lining up for an infrastructure bill. And if you do do something bipartisan on that, then I think doing something partisan on reconciliation — in some ways, with certain Democrats — it gets a lot harder.”
The GOP bet might pay off. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was noncommittal Monday on a second infrastructure package, saying only that “there’s a lot more that needs to be done, so we need to work it the same way we’re working this one.” He declined to say whether he’d support legislation that only had Democratic votes.
“You’re putting words in your own mouth,” Manchin said. “I’m not saying that.”
What’s at stake is perhaps trillions of dollars in spending sought by Democrats to provide paid family leave, raise taxes on corporations and act on climate change. Those policies are more likely to fall by the wayside because, though there’s bipartisan hope for physical infrastructure, Democrats’ more progressive priorities have no chance of attracting GOP support.
The bipartisan framework Portman and Sinema are developing totals $973 billion over five years or $1.2 trillion over eight years, including $579 billion in new spending. That’s more new money than a proposal Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va) presented to Biden earlier in the process, before their negotiations fell apart.
Despite the increase in the top-line number, even the most conservative Senate Republicans are holding their fire and declining to criticize the proposal. Negotiators are expected to outline the deal in further detail Tuesday at the Senate Republican lunch, according to a source familiar with the talks.
Democrats, meanwhile, are aware that their time to get something done is dwindling and that a bipartisan agreement could take up significant floor time. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday said that the infrastructure talks are proceeding on two tracks. The New York Democrat described the first track as bipartisan, while the second encompasses elements of Biden’s plan that won’t get GOP support.
Progressives for weeks have urged Democrats to move swiftly and ditch Republicans in the hopes of getting the most ambitious package possible. A spokesperson for Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) confirmed he’d oppose a bipartisan package, increasing the number of Republicans needed to sign on. But as of now, it’s not clear that Biden’s party has the votes to proceed along party lines while sidestepping a filibuster through the so-called budget reconciliation process, regardless of what it includes. Democrats said Monday that they will need to have a broader discussion as a caucus about the second package.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is participating in the bipartisan discussions, said he was “not sure everyone in the caucus” has made a commitment to the arduous step of reconciliation. And Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added that Democrats discussed last week whether the members now joining Portman and Sinema’s talks will “be with us on reconciliation for what is not included” in any bipartisan bill.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said that regardless of whether a deal with the GOP is reached, Senate Democrats will need assurances about a second package of spending that aligns with Biden’s initial jobs proposal.
“If a lot of Democratic senators on our side believe that this is all we’re going to get, then I think you’d lose a lot of votes,” Casey said. “But if it’s a two-chapter book, then we can still get most of ‘jobs and families’ done. So we’re going to have to have an agreement among us that we do both.”
Even though Manchin is staying noncommittal, other moderate Democrats are signaling they’ll stick with their party when it comes to Biden’s bigger set of priorities. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who is participating in the bipartisan discussions, said she’s fine with sidestepping Republicans but that the caucus will need to discuss what any follow-up bill would include.
Bipartisan negotiators met again on Monday evening. But the infrastructure talks have been in a confusing state for days: Tester said after that meeting that indexing the gas tax to inflation was ruled out as a way to pay for the bill. A few minutes later, Shaheen said that very same idea was still being discussed.
Under the framework outlined last week, the deal would not include tax hikes. Instead, the group is considering paying for the package by repurposing coronavirus relief funds, establishing an infrastructure financing authority and imposing electric vehicle fees.
In a Monday interview with conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, McConnell put the odds of reaching a bipartisan deal at 50-50. But he reiterated that the infrastructure bill can’t touch the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts and “needs to be credibly paid for.”
Capito said Monday that she’s “supportive” of the bipartisan efforts but needs to see more details.
“The pay-fors are going to be really important here,” the West Virginia Republican said. “Obviously that’s where I ran into stumbling blocks with the White House, and mine were very similar, if not the same, as what’s in this plan.”