While one bill hardly represents a new era of bipartisan cooperation in Washington, it’s more than many people (myself included) expected, given all the political benefits for Republicans of simply depriving Democrats of any legislative victories at all. It’s a reminder that every member of Congress has their unique combination of incentives, and sometimes they can come together to make what looked unlikely suddenly become possible.
But don’t get too optimistic just yet.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s primary goal is still, as it has been all year, to retake the Senate in 2022 and hopefully to see that followed by Biden losing his reelection bid two years later (though the first is far more important to him than the second).
McConnell hopes that, a year from now, voters will have lots of reasons to be disgruntled but few reasons to be pleased. A steady stream of manufactured culture war controversies will keep the Republican base angry, while voters in the middle will feel they’ve gotten little from Democratic rule and a less-than-spectacular economy. (You might have noticed that Republicans are positively vibrating with the hope that inflation will spin out of control.) Put it together and it would be more than enough to allow the GOP to take back control of Congress.
That plan might be set back somewhat if this bipartisan infrastructure bill passes, but it still stands a good chance of succeeding. Which is why Democrats can’t be too satisfied with just this agreement.
First, we still have a ways to go on infrastructure, and this bill is far from perfect. It had to be pared back multiple times to retain Republican support; in some areas it spends less than Democrats wanted, and some initiatives such as a green infrastructure bank were dropped altogether.
Democrats wanted to pay for it by increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations and boosting funding for the Internal Revenue Service so the agency could start recovering the hundreds of billions of dollars that go uncollected from the wealthy; those provisions were also dropped at the insistence of Republicans.
The good news is that there is still plenty of useful spending in the bill, and Democrats have another chance to include the things that are missing, when they move on a budget reconciliation bill that can be passed with a simple majority.
To do that, they will only have to negotiate with their own more conservative members. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) now says she won’t support the $3.5 trillion Democrats had proposed spending on the reconciliation bill; it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that she has no particular substantive objections, but just wants to be seen saying no at the outset so she can cast herself as the independent maverick constraining her party’s ambitions. But when the reconciliation bill is finally completed, Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) will likely be on board.
Keep in mind, though, that even if the bipartisan agreement is a genuine achievement, the credit the public will give Democrats for it will be minimal and fleeting. There’s plenty of polling showing that if you ask Americans whether the parties should work together, they’ll say yes (here’s a memo from White House adviser Mike Donilon to that effect). But it’s easy to put too much stock in the idea that a process concern will be as important as whether Democratic rule produces tangible results.
In the end, voters will give Biden and Democrats little or no credit for working across the aisle if it doesn’t actually make their lives better — nor should they.
Real-world progress should be the north star of this multistage infrastructure process and whatever else Democrats do — the legislation, the implementation and the politics. They have to make sure the results are felt in communities around the country as soon as possible. And they have to keep reminding voters, every day, that things are better because Democrats are in charge.
Even that might not be enough for them to forestall the loss almost every president sees in their first midterm election. But it’s the only chance they have.