The problem with Washington in 2021 might be described as posturing without a purpose — beyond scoring points against the White House. The Republican dance around President Biden’s infrastructure proposal almost makes me nostalgic for the sincerity of cynicism.
We know several things about the politics surrounding Biden’s big investment plan.
First, he wants to do far more than congressional Republicans will support. Second, the GOP doesn’t want to pay for any plan with a corporate tax increase. Third, Republicans will say that whatever is passed should happen only on a bipartisan basis.
Which comes down to this: Do a whole lot less; pay for it our way, or not at all; and maybe we’ll produce 10 GOP votes in the Senate to pass the bill in a normal way, rather than through the more cumbersome “reconciliation” process. That would require only the 50 votes Democratic senators can deliver on their own, plus Vice President Harris’s tiebreaker.
Now, I’d concede that there are a few Republican senators, bless them, who really would like to vote for a reasonably substantial infrastructure bill. A larger group is fully aware that opposing popular and needed projects in their own states doesn’t make their party look good.
Biden certainly has the upside of the issue. A New York Times/Survey Monkey poll released last week showed that 64 percent of Americans (including nearly 3 in 10 Republicans) approve of his American Jobs Plan. Support for many of its particulars — improvements to roads and bridges, ports and transit, and universal broadband — ran even higher.
But the history of the Obama years has taught Democrats that Republicans aren’t, well, posturing in good faith. They are not staking out one position today to lay the groundwork for reaching a mutually agreeable compromise tomorrow. Rather, many Democrats figure their opponents will string them along, and then, at the end, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) will still have to get the bill done with only Democratic votes.
The real question before Senate Democrats is whether it’s worth seeing if enough Republicans would allow some significant share of infrastructure spending to pass in a bipartisan way. A leading advocate of what you might call the Big Test is Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.). He says it might be worth dividing Biden’s plan into two, with one winning GOP votes and the other passing through reconciliation. But he doesn’t want to give the GOP forever.
“Over the next month, I believe we can and should work on a two-track path to address our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, as well as President Biden’s broader plan to make our economy work for all Americans,” Coons told me.
“If my Republican colleagues are serious about a bipartisan bill, we should work with them to see if we can reach a deal by Memorial Day,” he continued. “We should at the same time continue work on a larger legislative package so that Democrats can pass a bill by July if we can’t make bipartisan progress.”
The alternative Democratic view is that it’s just not worth breaking up the plan, especially because there is virtually no chance Republicans will ever approve any corporate tax increases to finance the package.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) calls himself “mostly agnostic on process” questions. But he argues that Democrats have already passed one big bill, the $1.9 trillion relief package, and that getting through one more large piece of legislation could be far easier than offering up bite-size chunks in a quest for GOP votes that might never materialize.
“I saw how hard the first one was,” he said in an interview. “I know this is going to be hard. . . . Why not get as much in one package as we can so we don’t have to do it a third time?”
Brown is right to be skeptical: Wagers on GOP goodwill have lately been suckers’ bets. But Coons is also right that there are worse things than being caught trying bipartisanship — with a deadline. Better to know quickly how serious Republicans are about infrastructure. Let the burden be on them to show what brand of posturing they’re engaged in.