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Opinion Bring on Infrastructure Week!

President Biden at a meeting with senators in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday. (Doug Mills/Bloomberg)
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Could “infrastructure week” be more than just a beautiful dream?

That’s what it was all through the Trump presidency, when every few months the administration would announce a new focus on infrastructure. Sometimes nothing would happen at all; other times they’d put out a lame plan with misleading numbers and proposals to create enormous private profits at public expense. But no serious bills were ever written, and nothing came of it.

So four years later, the need to repair and upgrade our roads, bridges, sewer and water systems, and broadband Internet is even more acute. And now our hopes are starting to rise again.

President Biden met with a bipartisan group of senators Thursday to discuss infrastructure, and expressed his hope that this might be a rare area of cooperation. “I really, honest to God, never have thought of infrastructure as being a partisan issue,” he said.

But here’s something even more important:

In recent days, Biden administration officials and a top congressional Democrat have opened the door to an infrastructure bill that is not offset by tax increases and instead adds more to the budget deficit, which they hope could bring more Republican support.

The immediate justification is a new Congressional Budget Office projection that the deficit will be smaller this year than previously anticipated (though still very large) because of signs the economy will rebound quicker. But the even more important context is that Democrats have stopped listening to Republican whining about the deficit.

That — combined with real-world evidence that debt isn’t nearly the danger everyone used to think it was — has transformed the conversation around government spending.

There’s a silver lining here for Republicans, if they could bring themselves to see it. Because Democrats no longer feel the need to pay for every penny of every spending proposal they offer, they don’t have to raise taxes on rich people. In Biden’s campaign plan, he said he’d pay for more infrastructure in part with tax increases on the wealthy.

Which brings us to infrastructure.

Some Democrats may hope that dropping upper-income tax increases — which Republicans loathe with every fiber of their beings — could bring in some GOP votes for an infrastructure bill, even enough to eliminate the need to pass it through reconciliation. (After the covid relief package that is likely to pass soon, under congressional rules there will be one more reconciliation bill possible this year.)

That means there will be plenty of inducements for Republicans to support the bill, and it wouldn’t contain the one thing they despise above all else. It would likely bring money and jobs to every state and congressional district in the country. Would Republicans oppose a bill guaranteed to deliver benefits to their own constituents?

Well, yes, they would. Just look at how many GOP-run states refused the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, which promised to pay almost the entire cost of insuring huge numbers of their poor residents, bringing economic and budgetary benefits along with it. Republicans opposed it even though doing so hurt their states, because they don’t think the government should give people health coverage, and they wanted to stick it to Barack Obama.

But infrastructure is something everyone at least claims they want, which could crack open the door to bipartisan support.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t get our hopes up too high. Republicans will still say they don’t like the fact that a big infrastructure bill increases the deficit, even if they don’t really mean it. There will inevitably be things in the bill they don’t like, including green infrastructure projects that might reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn.

And since any such bill would be written by Democrats, it is likely to rely on direct spending more than tax incentives; Republicans would prefer the latter. It’s the difference between the government building a bridge and the government giving a private company a tax break to build the bridge, after which the private company would own the bridge and charge you tolls to drive over it, forever.

I don’t doubt that unlike during the Trump years, there will be an actual infrastructure bill debated. There will be sincere attempts to have Republicans join in the process. But in the end, it will probably get little or no Republican support, which would mean it would have to be the second, and last, reconciliation bill of 2021.

If that’s the case, Democrats had better not waste the opportunity.

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