The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are laying a devious trap for Democrats. They shouldn’t get scammed.

On May 27, Senate Republicans raised a $928 billion infrastructure plan to counter President Biden’s original proposed plan. (Video: The Washington Post)
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As the White House and Democrats near a decision on whether to make a deal with Republicans on infrastructure or go it alone, this debate has been widely framed as one in which the bipartisan route carries obvious political benefits.

In this telling, the bipartisan route — on a more limited package of spending on traditional infrastructure that Republicans can accept — would allow President Biden and vulnerable Democrats to claim they succeeded in working with the opposition. Democrats could then pass more spending on other infrastructure-related priorities via a simple-majority “reconciliation” vote later.

But there’s a hidden political downside to the “bipartisan” route” that needs more attention. If Democrats do this, they will be brutally attacked by Republicans in the midterms for breaking their promise not to raise taxes on the middle class.

As of right now, there are two main ways a bipartisan deal might emerge. In the first one, a small bipartisan group of senators is working on a package of spending on traditional infrastructure, including roads, bridges and broadband.

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This plan would jettison many of the elements that Biden and Democrats have included in their $4 trillion in proposed spending, including investments in a decarbonized economy and in shoring up caregiving infrastructure, such as elder care. It’s being negotiated by GOP senators such as Mitt Romney (Utah) and Susan Collins (Maine), with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

Though details are fluid, this would likely be paid for by raising the gas tax and by user fees, including on owners of electric vehicles. Republicans refuse to pay for infrastructure by raising corporate tax rates and recapturing revenue from wealthy tax avoiders and multinational corporations sheltering profits offshore. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) calls this a “red line.”

This is where the serious political pitfall for Democrats can be found.

Biden and Democrats are already wary of any deal paid for by a higher gas tax and user fees, because they’re regressive and would break Biden’s promise not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 per year. However, it’s possible they might still be tempted down this road by the lure of being able to announce a bipartisan deal.

Here’s the problem: Even if this deal does have bipartisan support, Republicans will still seize on it to attack Biden and Democrats for breaking that promise anyway.

We’ve seen this movie before

Democrats would do well to remember the precedent here. After President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, Republicans spent enormous sums in the 2010 midterms, and even in subsequent elections, attacking Democrats for cutting Medicare and hurting seniors.

This was one of the most dishonest political attacks in recent memory. The ACA’s Medicare savings were squeezed from payments to health-care providers, not benefits, and Republicans themselves kept those same savings in subsequent budgets.

Jesse Lee, who worked in the Obama White House at the time, notes that this should be a cautionary tale for Democrats right now.

“After decades of Republican demands to cut out waste and abuse in Medicare, Obama actually did it to help fund the ACA,” Lee told me. “Republicans rewarded him by making his ‘cuts to Medicare’ their number one attack ad for years.”

“If Dems agree to user fees, there could easily be a billion dollars in GOP attacks on ‘Democratic gas taxes and toll roads’ in just these 2022 midterms,” said Lee, now a senior adviser at the Center for American Progress, which is urging Democrats to go it alone on infrastructure.

If you think it would matter one iota if a dozen GOP senators did vote for this deal, you’re not paying attention to how today’s GOP does politics. Republican Party committees would attack vulnerable Democrats in exactly this way regardless.

“Even if every Republican voted for it, it wouldn’t matter one bit,” Lee told me. “Biden has been right to avoid this trap.”

The key point here is that achieving bipartisanship not only requires Democrats to scale back their proposals. It also won’t do anything to dissuade Republican attacks, even ones over a plan that Republicans themselves supported.

The new Capito plan

The second way a bipartisan deal might emerge comes from a new infrastructure plan that Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) released on Thursday morning that would spend over $900 billion on mostly conventional infrastructure projects.

This plan avoids the above pitfall. But there’s another problem: Its pay-for appears to be highly questionable in another way. It consists of repurposed funds from the covid-19 relief package that passed this year.

This seems unlikely to prove acceptable to the White House and Democrats without changes to the pay-fors. If so, attention will revert to the other plan, the one with the trap for Democrats.

To be clear, there are all kinds of complications in this debate. One can theoretically see Democrats and Republicans agreeing to around $900 billion in conventional infrastructure spending with the right pay-fors, followed by doing all their other priorities via reconciliation.

And some Democrats do believe a narrow bipartisan package might make it easier for Manchin to back such a reconciliation package later. Without a bipartisan deal, it might be harder to get Manchin to back doing the entire thing by reconciliation.

But Democrats can’t let themselves get drawn into the trap of believing a bipartisan deal will insulate them against Republican bad-faith attacks. We’ve seen this movie before, and we know that it doesn’t end well.

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