The arguments for (and against) a ‘lean’ infrastructure deal


Deal or no deal?
Photo: TJ Kirkpatrick / The New York Times / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Joe Biden’s dream of a bipartisan infrastructure deal may soon become a reality – and plunge his party into turmoil.

Just days ago, I dismissed the ongoing negotiations between “moderate” Republicans in the Senate and the White House as a farce. And not without reason. Despite weeks of discussions, the parties still had not reached an agreement on the definition of infrastructure, let alone on how much to invest in it. And while it was plausible that Biden could cut the veils – and agree to a “lean” package of conventional road and bridge projects suitable for Republicans as well as Democrats – the question of funding remained an insurmountable hurdle: The White House insisted on “his package with tax hikes on the rich, when Republicans had produced no fundraising plan that at least ten GOP senators would support (and any bipartisan deal would require ten Republican votes to overcome a obstruction in the Senate).

But now there are murmurs that Senate Republicans might be ready to cover up those divisions with new Treasuries. As Axios reports:

Some Senate Republicans may agree to increase national debt to pay for a reduced infrastructure plan, senators and aides at Axios have said – one more take on a deal with President Biden before Democrats pack their bags and don’t go it alone … Deficit spending “could be part of the discussion,” Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told Axios. “It would be for what we consider to be hard infrastructure: roads, bridges, ports… Is this something on the table? I think that’s probably correct to say.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) Said, “My strong preference would be for this to be paid. But you know, if they have another proposal, I won’t reject it out of hand. “

Democrats and Republicans reaching a deal to raise taxes and increase spending would be abnormal, but parties agreeing to debt finance a mutually tolerable loan package are a routine occurrence on Capitol Hill. So, if deficit spending is on the table, a compromise may in fact be on the horizon.

And that’s not the only development that bodes well for a deal. On the one hand, the Senate GOP counter-offer would have increased to $ 1 trillion (although it’s not clear that ten Senate Republicans support that number, or how much of that reflects the reallocation of previously allocated stimulus funds). More critically still, the Washington To post reports that Joe Manchin is working with a small group of his fellow Republicans on a backup plan if talks between the White House and Senate Republicans fail.

This suggests that – if the administration decides to reject the GOP’s offer and move on to pursuing a partisan infrastructure bill through budget reconciliation – Manchin might be ready to follow suit. by Biden. At this point, the White House has had a tough negotiation in negotiations with the Republicans. The administration cut its revenue from $ 2.3 trillion to $ 1.7 trillion, but it refused to clean all climate and social spending from its package despite demands from the two Senate Republicans. and Manchin for a bill strictly focused on conventional infrastructure. The White House’s current offer retains a $ 400 billion investment in elderly home care and plenty of funding for green projects.

In contrast, the back-up plan Manchin is negotiating with Mitt Romney and Susan Collins, among others, would leave out elderly care and Biden’s plan to build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations. Given that such an investment in electric vehicles is clearly a form of infrastructure investment – and one of the least controversial climate policies imaginable – it is almost certain that the “meager” Romney-Manchin deal would rule out Biden’s proposals to end federal fossil fuel subsidies. fuel companies and the electrification of the school bus fleet.

The White House had set Memorial Day as the deadline for bipartisan negotiations; if no agreement is reached at this stage, the administration has indicated that it will pursue a budget reconciliation bill. Now the administration would be prepared to extend this deadline by a few weeks. But soon enough, Biden and his party will likely be faced with a defining decision for the presidency: to agree to some sort of “skinny” bipartisan infrastructure deal – with the hope of channeling the rest of Biden’s infrastructure investments and the climate in a subsequent bill – or else call the Manchin bluff and go straight to reconciliation.

It remains possible that there will not be ten Republican votes for the compromise that the White House manages to reach with the Republicans in the Senate, or that the centrist senators manage to reach between them. But Manchin reports that he will take half a loaf, although the administration will not. In this circumstance, Biden and the progressives in Congress will have to decide whether they want to play chicken with Manchin and his moderate colleagues. After all, with the House tightly divided, “the squad” can kill an infrastructure bill as easily as Manchin can.

The arguments for accepting a lean deal are as follows: Biden cannot pass his agenda without the cooperation of all moderate Democrats in the Senate and nearly all moderate Democrats in the House. Maybe once these moderates get their bipartisan merit badge (by putting their names on a lean infrastructure bill), they’ll feel more comfortable helping Biden get the rest away. of its program through partisan reconciliation bills. If this is the case, then taking the lean compromise may be the ideal course of action. Centrist Democrats are worried about deficit spending and that anxiety threatens to limit the reach of Biden’s climate and social investment plans. If Republicans are prepared to give Democrats cover on conventional deficit financing infrastructure – thus saving the party its limited supply of Manchin-approved tax increases to fund the rest of Biden’s agenda – then the reduction of a “skinny” deal today could in fact develop the total amount of public investment that Biden will ultimately be able to implement. Add to that the fact that bipartisanship, as an abstract concept, is popular with swing voters, and getting to yes starts to seem like a no-brainer.

But there are also good reasons to say, so to speak, “the big way or the highway”: if a bipartisan infrastructure deal is struck, moderate Democrats cannot be trusted to support future ones. climate and social welfare reconciliation bills. Manchin’s fetish for bipartisanship and Senate courtesy may make him reluctant to betray his Republican negotiating partners by helping Biden pass policies they explicitly rejected. Vulnerable moderates in the House, meanwhile, may like the idea of ​​running for re-election on the following message: “I supported bipartisan law that helped mend your roads, then served as a check on them. excessive spending. ” Yet Manchin knows he has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide a massive federal investment to his impoverished home state. And no moderate Democrat wants to enter his midterm without any major legislative victory to his name, except for a single stimulus package. So accepting a lean bill would not appease the moderates; it would simply cost Biden his influence over them. The best way to get Manchin’s cooperation for the president’s full agenda would be to make him blink: throw out all of Biden’s spending proposals – conventional infrastructure, climate investment, child allowance, universal pre-K, child care. elderly, etc. – in one. reconciliation bill and dare the West Virginia senator to reject it.

I have no idea which of these strategies is most likely to be successful. And it’s possible the Republican obstruction will end up saving Biden the trouble of choosing between them. But if ten GOP senators rally behind a meager deal, Democratic leaders will have to decide whether its moderates are best tamed with carrots or sticks.

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