Senators celebrate bipartisan compromise on infrastructure. Now the hard part begins
WASHINGTON – When a group of Democratic and Republicans senators assembled at the White House on Thursday with President Joe Biden to announce an infrastructure deal, it was all smiles and celebration.
“Today is proof that bipartisanship is alive and well in the United States Senate and in our country,” Arizona Sen. Krysten Sinema, the lead Democratic negotiator, said at the Capitol.
The celebration over the eight-year, $1.2 trillion deal lasted only a few hours. Despite the marathon negotiations that led to the compromise, the hardest work lies ahead: cobbling together a coalition of liberals, Democratic moderates and – perhaps – Republican centrists to pass the traditional transportation funding bill while pushing a more ambitious "human infrastructure" program that touches subsidized child care, home caregiving and climate change that only Democrats support.
Evidence of how complicated that will be was clear when Biden declared at the news conference he would not sign the bipartisan proposal into law without the "human infrastructure" elements – only to carefully walk back those comments Saturday after some Republicans accused him of a bait and switch and hinted at backing out of the compromise.
The back-and-forth signals just how fragile the infrastructure deal is in Congress, where Democrats control both chambers by whisker-thin margins. Over the next few weeks, Democrats will craft a budget proposal that will need to please liberals and moderates within their party if they hope to pass a separate bill with Biden's priorities using a special legislative maneuver called reconciliation.
Getting most things passed in Congress requires the backing of liberals and the support of at least 10 Republicans in the Senate – except when the party in control uses "reconciliation," which allows budget-related bills to get a floor vote without needing 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. The Senate is split 50-50, and Vice President Kamala Harris can break tie votes.
Though Biden backed off his demand, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Congress would not vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate passes its budget bill and sends it to the House in July.
The reconciliation package does not exist publicly yet – but a large proposal has been floated by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent and liberal firebrand who has ramped up pressure on Biden to go bigger on social programs.
Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, has a $6 trillion plan that would incorporate what Republicans derided as a “liberal wish list”: dropping the age for Medicare eligibility from 65 to 60; providing "robust" preschool and eldercare program funding; expanding government-supported health care coverage for hearing, dental and vision; and "huge climate provisions," said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who has seen an outline of the plan.
“It is imperative that at this moment in American history, we begin to address the long-neglected problems facing working-class people. In addition, of course, to physical infrastructure. In addition to climate,” Sanders told USA TODAY last week. “Add all that stuff up. It’s an expensive proposition, but I think we have very strong support.”
Sanders said the price tag of his proposal could decrease, particularly if the bipartisan deal addresses traditional infrastructure that no longer would need to be included in his plan.
Democratic senator: Sanders' bill 'will get a lot of work'
Both Democratic majorities in Congress have pursued a two-track plan for weeks – the bipartisan deal on one track and the larger bill on the reconciliation track.
But with a bipartisan deal struck on physical infrastructure, how to pursue the reconciliation budget plan – and how big it is – became a chief point of contention on Capitol Hill.
"We can’t get the bipartisan bill done unless we're sure we're getting the budget reconciliation bill done. We can't get the budget reconciliation bill done unless we're sure of the bipartisan," Schumer said last week. "And I think our members across the spectrum realize that."
Liberal leaders, such as Khanna, are not worried that Biden's walk-back Saturday will complicate their efforts to move ahead with both bills.
"Speaker Pelosi knows the votes aren't there to pass the bipartisan bill unless the House votes simultaneously on a Senate-passed reconciliation (measure) with bold climate provisions," Khanna told USA TODAY on Monday. "So (Biden's) statements are not as relevant as the hard count."
Senate Democratic moderates who helped negotiate the bipartisan deal harbor reservations about a reconciliation bill, especially one as big as Sanders proposed.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., called it "plenty hefty," and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., shook her head when USA TODAY asked about the $6 trillion price tag: “I think it will get a lot of work.”
“If they think in reconciliation I’m going to throw caution to the wind and go to $5 trillion or $6 trillion when we can only afford $1 trillion or $1.5 trillion or maybe $2 trillion ... then I can’t be there,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told ABC News' "This Week."
Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., called the price tag "ambitious."
"Let’s look at the flip side at how we pay for it starting with the most wealthy Americans and multinational corporations," he said.
Sanders' proposal does not spell out how it would be paid for, a task that will be left to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and other members of the Senate Finance Committee he chairs. Liberals have pitched ideas such as ending hundreds of billions in federal subsidies annually provided to the fossil fuel industry and raising the corporate tax rate that was cut from 35% to 21% under the Trump administration's tax cuts in 2017.
On whether he’d support raising the corporate tax rate back to 35%, Padilla told USA TODAY, “Maybe not all the way to 35% but up from where they are? Absolutely.”
What will ultimately pass is a bill that both Sanders and Manchin can agree on since the Democrats can not afford to lose a single vote. Though Sanders' initial proposal is unlikely to make it to the House, a number of Senate Democrats, such as Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, told USA TODAY they're open at least to a discussion of an ambitious plan.
"All I know is we have to go big, whatever the definition of big ends up being," he said. "We have to have a blood oath about part two (reconciliation bill).”
Republicans stand opposed to reconciliation demand
Adding another layer of fragility, despite Biden's assurances of the bipartisan plan, some Senate Republicans have shown they may change their minds.
Some Republican senators who had backed the infrastructure deal expressed hesitancy after Biden threatened he would sign it into law only if Congress passed a reconciliation bill.
Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of 11 Republican senators who negotiated with the White House and endorsed the bipartisan plan, called Biden's comments "extortion." Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said, "Any compromise on paid-for infrastructure is a bad deal so long as" Biden, Pelosi and Schumer "insist on pursuing a multi-trillion dollar tax-and-spend reconciliation package."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., insisted in a statement Monday that Biden needs to request that Schumer and Pelosi disconnect passage of the bipartisan deal from the reconciliation package, saying Democrats want to "hold a bipartisan bill hostage over a separate and partisan process."
“Unless Leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi walk back their threats,” McConnell said, “then President Biden’s walk-back of his veto threat would be a hollow gesture.”
Contributing: Joey Garrison and Matthew Brown
Follow Savannah Behrmann online @SavBehrmannDC