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Patience and persistence pay off as Biden gets infrastructure deal across finish line

Bipartisan bill would have ramifications across the country and delivers on a campaign promise

President Biden celebrated his administration’s infrastructure deal on Nov. 6, the morning after Congress approved the $1.2 trillion bill. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)
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President Biden on Friday secured an achievement that had eluded leaders of both parties for years, notching a campaign promise after the House passed a bipartisan agreement that would make major investments in all 50 states for years to come.

Shortly before midnight on Friday, as the House passed the bill 228-206 with the backing of more than 10 Republicans, Biden’s slumping political fortunes appeared to suddenly change. After seeing his poll numbers slide for weeks, he had suddenly fulfilled a core campaign promise and notched a significant victory after months of legislative gridlock.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that we took a monumental step forward as a nation,” Biden said Saturday morning at the White House with Vice President Harris. “We did something long overdue, that has long been talked about in Washington, but never actually done.”

This is what is included in the $1 trillion Senate infrastructure bill

Biden called the bill a “once in a generation” investment that would create millions of jobs and improve the domestic economy. He said the measure included the most significant investment in roads and bridges in 70 years, the most significant investment in passenger rail in 50 years, and the most significant investment in public transit in history. Biden said he and Harris would have a formal signing ceremony for the bill soon, citing the desire for those who worked on the legislation to be able to attend.

“For all of you at home who feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s changing so rapidly, this bill is for you,” he said. “The vast majority of the thousands of jobs that will be created do not require a college degree. This is a blue collar blueprint to rebuild America.”

Biden also said the House and Senate would approve a separate climate and social spending package but did not specify a deadline. He declined to comment on whether the centrist lawmakers who primarily supported the infrastructure deal committed to supporting that broader $2 trillion piece of legislation that has pitted centrist Democrats against liberals. Biden said he would not comment on private conversations.

Those hurdles await. On Saturday, he seemed to bask in the hurdle he had just cleared. The roughly $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill — which includes $550 billion in new spending — will soon go to his desk for signature, and Biden said he would invite Democrats and Republicans to a ceremony so they could have the moment to share together.

The Senate first passed the infrastructure bill in August with a 69-30 vote, the rare type of partnership Biden committed to in the 2020 campaign. The measure languished in the House for months, though, as liberal lawmakers sought to use their leverage to advance Biden’s larger climate and social spending bill, but Democrats reached a deal late Friday night to proceed. The bill finally passed shortly before midnight.

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The action followed a brutal election night for Democrats on Tuesday and a summer in which the White House was roiled by the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and the surging delta variant.

But Biden has now achieved milestones that his predecessors only reached for. He pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, ending the longest U.S. war, which President Donald Trump and President Barack Obama had hoped to do. He will soon sign an infrastructure package that Trump had promised but never built the political coalition to achieve.

Once he signs it into law, the infrastructure package would be the second major legislative achievement of Biden’s presidency, following the March stimulus law. But unlike that measure, the infrastructure package enjoyed broad bipartisan support, winning even the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The stimulus plan was also aimed at addressing current problems in the domestic economy, while the new infrastructure plan is aimed at more lasting change.

Biden had tried to encourage a bipartisan approach to the bill for months, hoping it would serve as a model for other initiatives. Some key authors of the legislation, such as Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), sought to break through partisan gridlock and deliver a package that liberals and conservatives would support. They were able to design the bill in a way that won backing from both business groups and labor unions without financing everything through big tax hikes.

Infrastructure bill includes fund to ensure accessible transit stations

Past Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to secure such an infrastructure deal despite growing calls for action from labor leaders, the business community and experts alarmed by degrading public works. Trump had long talked about passing a massive infrastructure package, but his advisers never coalesced around a strategy and “Infrastructure Week” became a running joke among his aides. While those efforts languished, infrastructure problems grew, with the United States eventually ranking behind a dozen other developed countries, raising concerns about safety and the economic competitiveness of the country.

“It’s a game-changer for the country,” said Ed Rendell, a Biden supporter who served as former governor of Pennsylvania. “The first comprehensive infrastructure plan we have had since Dwight D. Eisenhower created the interstate highway system. It will be a big shot in the arm.”

Biden gave lawmakers the space to cut the deal, hosting Democrats and Republicans at the White House over the summer while the negotiations intensified. He sought to pay for the new projects with higher taxes. When lawmakers balked, he said he was open to other ideas.

The bill that passed the Senate in August stayed in tact over the past three months, but it remained dormant as House Democrats fought over other parts of their party’s agenda. Biden’s poll numbers slid over that span as the bill remained tied up and questions were raised.

Americans would begin feeling the impact of the infrastructure legislation in two to three months, as funding gets prepared for new projects across the entire country to start, Biden said on Saturday.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN on Saturday that the money would quickly help finance projects for safety on roads as well as state highway and other transportation projects. He said the funding for electric vehicle charging stations and other new programs created by the infrastructure legislation could take longer.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was known for passing the “The New Deal” and Theodore Roosevelt was known for “The Square Deal” but Biden’s agenda represents “The Big Deal,” Buttigieg said. “The work begins right away but it will go on for years to come,” he added.

Biden unveiled a roughly $2 trillion jobs plan this spring that became the core of his infrastructure proposal, as well as another $2 trillion proposal focused on education, climate and parts of the safety net that Democrats are still debating in Congress. Major legislative obstacles to both packages slowed their progress, and for months Washington has been consumed by gridlock and tense negotiations that stretched on for days and generated negative publicity for the administration.

Questions emerge about financing for bipartisan infrastructure deal

Many legislative aides were initially skeptical of Biden’s insistence for a bipartisan infrastructure bill, believing that Republican lawmakers would never coalesce around a deal with the White House. Many Republicans did ultimately reject the measure, alleging that it would amount to wasteful spending. But 19 Republicans joined 50 Democrats to back the package during the vote in August. And more than 10 Republicans in the House helped shepherd the bill into law Friday night.

Many of the Republicans who supported the infrastructure measure were motivated by a mixture of support for the underlying policies and a desire to show that they could work with Biden productively if the White House chose to pursue such measures in a bipartisan way.

“Passing major legislation in good faith shows that Democrats don’t need to get rid of getting the filibuster, because Republicans will operate in good faith when there’s an area for compromise. That was part of the calculation for working with the president,” said Donald Schneider, who was a chief economist on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Nonpartisan estimates found the legislation will add over $250 billion to the deficit in 10 years, as it relies on a series of revenue gimmicks due to Republican aversion to raising taxes on the wealthy and Biden’s refusal to raise taxes on those earning under $400,000 a year.

Liberal economists say the bill only partially addresses economic needs and that Biden must be committed to doing far more. Darrick Hamilton, who is an economist at the New School, said his presidency would be “inadequate and incomplete” if he only passes the infrastructure bill.

Biden’s plans to enact universal prekindergarten, new measures to combat climate change, and other social welfare expansions remain tied up in both chambers of Congress, with no clear policy resolutions at hand. “If this is all we end up with, then it’s a missed opportunity and more of the same,” Hamilton said of the deal. “It’s definitely not enough.”

But the White House will welcome the passage of even part of its agenda. Biden’s approval has slipped steadily for months as the administration was blindsided with the resurgence of the pandemic, unexpected inflation and crises abroad. But on Friday, White House aides saw reason to believe that their fortunes could be turning with signs of the coronavirus now receding, the economy posting its best jobs data in months, and progress emerging on stalled sections of the president’s economic agenda.

Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, urged the administration to send senior officials to every significant infrastructure groundbreaking in the country next year. He said every Democratic lawmaker should hammer the following message: “President Trump could not do infrastructure for years with a Republican Congress, but President Biden has delivered the biggest infrastructure package since Eisenhower.”

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