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Do we have an infrastructure deal?

Four takeaways on what Democrats and Republicans are up to — and why it’s a big deal

President Biden with Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), left, Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) outside the White House on June 24. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

After weeks of negotiating, President Biden has said yes to an infrastructure approach — crafted by a bipartisan gang of centrist senators and supported by Democratic Party leaders ——that would plow more than $1 trillion into the nation’s physical infrastructure. If the plan passes, Biden would be able to make a large down payment on his campaign promise to fix crumbling roads and bridges, expand rural access to broadband, and invest in clean energy, transit, and other programs.

But beware — potholes lie ahead.

Last week, five Republican and five Democratic senators — backed by an additional six Republican and five Democratic senators — appeared with the president to unveil the agreement. But Biden turned heads later that day when he vowed he would only sign the bipartisan plan into law if Congress simultaneously sends him a bill, crafted separately by the Democrats, to shore up the nation’s social infrastructure. This second bill would be what’s called a “reconciliation” bill, able to pass the Senate with only Democratic votes. Biden watered down that threat over the weekend, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), has made clear that there isn’t going to be a bipartisan bill unless there is a reconciliation bill.

Republicans knew Democrats were working on a reconciliation bill but cried foul when Biden explicitly linked passage of the two. That led GOP lawmakers to threaten to blow up the deal and set the White House scrambling to get the plan back on track.

Here’s what you need to know.

It’s a framework, not a deal

The agreement is a framework, not an actual legislative bill. The gang identified programs that such a bill would fund over the next eight years, and suggested more than a half-trillion dollars of new spending not previously authorized by Congress.

Producing an actual bill takes time. Lawmakers and staff must translate the agreement into legislative text, the details of which legislators could contest. What’s more, budget laws require the Congressional Budget Office to estimate a bill’s costs. Because the Senate gang committed to offset new spending, some senators’ votes may turn on how the CBO scores the bill’s proposals for raising revenue. Not all the approaches suggested in the agreement — such as auctioning off the 5G spectrum or making it a priority to collect unpaid back taxes — are likely to yield the revenue needed.

Why is Joe Manchin such a thorn in the Democratic Party's side? Let us count the reasons.

Reconciliation is far off, too

To write a reconciliation bill, which would be protected from a Senate filibuster and thus could pass with only Democratic votes, the House and Senate must first agree to a budget resolution that sets spending, revenue and debt targets for the coming fiscal year. The budget resolution also instructs congressional committees to draft provisions that lie within their turf.

Democratic chairs of the House and Senate budget committees are discussing the parameters of the resolution, but they have not yet agreed. After the chambers agree on the resolution, work can begin on the reconciliation bill. Budget laws allow for nearly unlimited Senate amendments to both bills, which means that the measures will consume days of floor time in summer, when the Senate is often in recess.

Democrats, divided

With slim majorities and disagreements within the party, Democratic leaders must walk a tightrope to secure majorities for both bills.

In both chambers, more liberal Democrats favor a reconciliation bill focused on social programs financed by tax increases on corporations and the wealthy. With an election year looming and Democratic control at risk, they fear that the president and Democratic leaders might give up on a reconciliation bill once they pass the bipartisan plan. So progressives threatened to oppose any bipartisan plan that does not invest in social infrastructure such as child care, education, health and climate.

At the same time, more moderate Democrats favor a less costly, bipartisan package to appeal to more moderate voters back home and to show that they can work across party lines. What’s more, two House Democrats have signaled that they’re uneasy with an expensive reconciliation bill. And pivotal Democratic senators, particularly Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), have not yet committed to voting for a Democrats-only reconciliation bill — though Manchin has offered an outline of what he would support.

By exploiting procedural advantages — especially the House speaker’s influence over the timing and makeup of what goes to the floor — Democratic leaders aim to make voting for both bills palatable to the factions. House and Senate Democratic leaders have agreed to pass the bipartisan bill only if they can also move forward with the partisan reconciliation bill, cutting into the leverage Manchin and Sinema have enjoyed in a 50-50 Senate. Leaders are betting that that condition will entice both factions to vote for both measures. Shaking hands on the bipartisan deal might be just the sweetener Manchin and Sinema need to be able to vote for reconciliation.

Republicans, too clever by half?

Bipartisan cooperation in policymaking is unusual when the opposition party thinks it has a chance to win back control of Congress. Usually minority parties try to show their differences from the party in power, so voters see what’s at stake in the next election. But this time, almost a dozen Republicans have shown interest in cooperating. And at least so far, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not torpedoed the deal.

Why? First, spending on physical infrastructure is popular. Second, at least one Republican thought cooperating on a bipartisan agreement could diminish Democrats’ appetite for abolishing the filibuster. Third, Republicans saw a chance to fracture divided Democrats. In this case, Republicans believed adopting a bipartisan bill could undermine passage of reconciliation.

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Democrats’ move to yoke the bills together undermines that GOP strategy. GOP votes for the hard infrastructure bill might not lessen Democrats’ support for reconciliation. And walking away from the deal makes it more likely both that Republicans will be blamed for its failure and that a reconciliation bill would pass. Are Republicans willing to accept a substantively robust bipartisan deal even if the optics work in Democrats’ political favor? Stay tuned.

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