The first is the bipartisan infrastructure bill, estimated to cost about $1 trillion. A framework agreement was announced in late June by Biden and 10 senators from the two parties. The deal briefly hit a rough patch because of an apparent misstatement by the president (which he walked back under pressure from Republicans) and now is in further negotiations as senators and their staffers attempt to translate the framework into legislative language.
The second measure incorporates much of Biden’s original American Jobs and American Rescue plans that did not make it into that bipartisan bill.
The bipartisan bill deals with hard infrastructure items — things like roads and bridges, transit, rural broadband, removing lead pipes that now deliver drinking water to many Americans, electrifying city and school buses, and installing a network of electric vehicle chargers.
What was left out was plenty, things that Biden calls human infrastructure — various social welfare programs as well as more spending to address the climate crisis. Those elements will become the bill that Democrats will attempt to pass under the rules of reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority and thereby can avoid a GOP filibuster in the Senate. But in the 50-50 Senate, that means Biden and the Democrats cannot afford a single defection.
This is the same strategy that helped Biden get his $1.9 trillion economic relief and stimulus package approved in the winter. By comparison with what lies ahead, that battle will look easy.
The two bills are on separate tracks. But as Biden has said, and as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has stated more emphatically, they must move in tandem. Many Democrats will want to know what the reconciliation package contains before they commit to supporting the bipartisan infrastructure measure, and vice versa. And before they commit to supporting the reconciliation package, a lot of intraparty bargaining lies ahead for Democrats.
The first indication of what that package will look like will come in the next few weeks as both the House and Senate prepare and vote on a budget resolution. Budget resolutions are not as detailed as the later legislation will be. Like the bipartisan agreement on infrastructure, they are a framework.
Still, this will be the first indication of whether Democrats can reconcile the ambitions of lawmakers on the party’s left, such as Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), with the reservations about more spending by moderates, like Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) or Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), a member of the Budget Committee and one of the senators who put together the bipartisan infrastructure package.
Sanders has talked about a measure as large as $6 trillion, with components that go beyond what Biden has asked for in his proposals. Other Democrats will probably have their own proposals to include in the package. Exactly what the moderates see as a ceiling on spending and components is less clear, but it will be substantially less than $6 trillion.
Still, some analysts say it’s not out of the question that, when combined with the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, the total cost could be more than $3 trillion — a big number and not that much less than Biden’s original proposals for his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, which came with price tags totaling a bit more than $4 trillion.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has floated the idea of focusing less on the overall price tag, hoping in part to avoid a sticker shock that could scare off moderate Democrats. Instead, he believes the package should be seen as two elements. The first would encompass longer-term investments, which he argues need not be offset fully or at all with additional revenue. The second would be everything else, which he believes could be offset with additional taxes.
He draws an analogy with the budgeting process in many states, which often breaks capital spending out separately from general operating funds. His thinking is that by doing this, Democrats can make a case that these other programs, however costly, would not result in an increase in the deficit in later years because they would be paid for.
Even if Democrats can agree on the overall shape of a reconciliation package, raising revenue could be a sticky issue, especially for those lawmakers who face competitive races in 2022. But Democrats believe that many of the potential revenue sources for the reconciliation package — a higher corporate rate or a higher top rate for individuals or higher capital gains taxes — are politically popular and therefore more palatable to the public and wavering lawmakers.
This debate could be influenced by the revenue assumptions in the bipartisan plan. The first look at what those negotiators outlined drew lots of criticism from outside analysts, who suggested there was a fair amount of fuzzy math involved. If that were to remain the case, Democrats might feel more emboldened to engage in some fuzzy math of their own in the reconciliation measure.
Senate Budget Committee members met via Zoom a week ago, but the discussion was only about general parameters and members reached no agreement. Beyond reaching consensus among themselves, committee Democrats must be mindful of the views of the other Senate Democrats.
Right now, the focus is on the Senate. Staffers for a group of bipartisan senators have been at work fleshing out that agreement. The work on the budget resolution is moving, but perhaps without the urgency that will be needed. Senate Democrats and White House officials would like to see the bipartisan bill hit the Senate floor the week of July 19. After that will come the budget resolution, presumably ahead of the August recess, setting up an intense post-Labor Day period on Capitol Hill that will also include debate over regular appropriations bills and the debt ceiling.
One wild card is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Will he get behind the bipartisan agreement once the details are worked out, or will he attempt to scuttle it with demands that Democrats are not prepared to meet? As one Democrat observed privately, does McConnell want vulnerable Democratic senators to be able to run campaign commercials touting their role in reaching a bipartisan agreement on something as popular as infrastructure spending?
So pick your metaphor for what lies ahead. Whatever your choice, it means no room for mistakes by Democrats. They will rise or fall together.