President Joe Biden unveiled Wednesday a massive Infrastructure bill, one of the key priorities of his administration. The bill, which would roughly cost $2.3 trillion, comes weeks after the White House’s first major policy win (the COVID relief plan) which had a tag price of around $1.9 trillion and while the administration continues to endure the negative effects caused by the border crisis.
The administration would like to get their massive plan through Congress quickly, with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki saying that the President’s team expects the bill to be passed in the summer, while Biden said in an event in Pittsburg unveiling the bill that it represents a “once-in-a generation investment in America”.
The President highlighted the important role infrastructure plays in the administration by designating a team to serve as advocates to the bill, including Transportation Secretary Buttigieg, who will be having a stellar role in the massive proposal.
Despite the pomp and positive messaging coming from the White House about their chances to get their infrastructure project done, political reality paints a challenging scenario for the President. As the Democrats only retain control over an extremely slim majority in both houses of Congress and with many lawmakers concerned about spending that record amount of money after passing three massive COVID-relief bills over the last year.
Republicans, however, are not keen on the infrastructure bill, with Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) issuing a press statement denouncing Biden’s bill as a “missed opportunity” saying that the proposal is not really about infrastructure, instead being a “smokescreen for unrelated agendas”.
Biden would have two alternatives to try and get his gigantic bill passed: co opting enough Republicans to support the bill, or depend only on the Democratic Party’s legislators to get their infrastructure project signed into law.
Option 1: Seek bipartisanship
This would be the ideal scenario for the government, as it would enable them to sell a bipartisan and popular agreement to the American Public which could then be used to bolster Biden’s credentials as an effective leader to the American electorate. Jen Psaki said in a press conference that the President is expecting to invite some Republicans to debate the bill in the Oval Office, while White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said in an interview with Politico that the had “some hopes” on passing the bill in a bipartisan way.
In theory, securing some type of bipartisan support is not only an option, but a need. While Democrats would have no trouble on getting their bill through the House, they would have to face the famed filibuster in the Senate, forcing them to find 10 GOP senators who would be willing to vote for allowing the bill to get on a vote in the floor.
Democrats appear to be looking into some options that would allow them to cajole some GOP lawmakers into supporting the bill, with the Associated Press reporting that Democrats are offering members of congress to introduce their prefered local infrastructure pet projects as eligible to obtain funding from the overall bill, a process commonly known as “earmarks” in parliamentary lexic.
Democrats could utilize this mechanism (which had been banned in recent years) to give the opportunity to Republican lawmakers to get some projects to their states approved, giving them some political incentives to vote in favor of the bill. A bipartisan law then, need not to include all Republicans, but just enough of them to give the legislation a good fighting chance in the upper chamber.
The road for a bipartisan agreement looks dire at best, with Republicans and Democrats profoundly disagreeing on the way the bill should be funded. Democrats are proposing a significant tax hike on corporations as a way to foot the bill of the program, while Republicans arguing that such an increase would ultimately damage the overall economy.
Many GOP legislators are concerned that the proposed bill will include many projects aimed at satisfying the Democratic base, rather than strictly funding policies aimed at repairing and improving American roads, bridges, etc. While any compromise with Republicans on taxes or the scope of the bill can cause angst within the most progressive wings of the Democratic Party, making any deal shaky at best.
Democrats have stated that while bipartisanship might be what they desire, they would push hard for their bill regardless. With Klain saying that the “president was elected to do a job” and that he intends to do just that, if the COVID-19 relief bill (which received no GOP support) serves as an indicator, then talks of bipartisan consensus would be just that, words.
Option 2: Follow the COVID relief bill model and go alone
Traditionally, bipartisanship ought to be a need more than a luxury in an even divided Senate, as the filibuster would prevent most bills to get some degree of opposition acquiescence to get the bill going in the upper house. However, traditional times are long gone, and Democrats have been eyeing to use the same parliamentary maneuver that allowed them to get their COVID relief bill with a simple majority, a process called budget reconciliation.
According to a report made by the Congressional Research Service, budget reconciliation is a process with the goal to “enhance Congress’s ability to bring existing spending, revenue, and debt limit laws into compliance with current fiscal priorities”, meaning that it offers Congress a more expeditious ways to approve bills that tackleany of these issues.
The key benefit of Reconciliation is that establishes strict time limits on the debate of bills in the Senate floor, effectively preventing senators to block legislation through the filibuster mechanism, reducing the threshold of approval from 60 votes to 51 (or 50 if you have the VP on your side).
Biden used this mechanism for the approval of his COVID relief bill, which got approved in a marathonic night session in the Senate through a strictly partisan vote, 50-50 with VP Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaker vote. Republicans are also not strangers to the use of reconciliation, as Trump’s 2017 tax cut was also approved using the same mechanism.
The question then, is not if there are ways to get a bill approved by a simple majority vote, but how many times can Congress use reconciliation multiple times in a same year. Although the law does not specify a limit for the times the measure can be used, the Senate has generally agreed that Congress could pass a maximum of one annual bill per category (spending, revenue, debt limits) making it a total of three bills per year.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has already begin considering the opportunity of asking the Senate Parliamentarian (the referee on the rules of the Senate) to consider allowing the use of the reconciliation process again this year, according to CBS.
If the Senate Parliamentarian rules in favor of the Democrats, then Joe Biden would have a much easier path to get his bill approved as he would only need to convince his Democratic caucus to get the project to his desk at the Oval Office. Sure, negotiations with Synema and Manchin might be complicated, but it would be far easier to achieve than convincing 10 Republicans to jump ship.
Even getting the bill approved via a simple majority vote does not guarantee the bill will become a law, as just a single slip could make the arithmetics for passing the bill impossible. The minimal margin of maneuver Biden has is a reminder that even if Democrats have a majority, it is not a very comfortable one.