Momentum is building in the Senate behind a $1.2 trillion infrastructure proposal, as liberals are showing a new willingness to accept the package with key assurances and Republican leaders predicting the potential of wide support within their conference.
There are still many details that need to be sorted out – both on the details of the bill and the process for becoming law – and the whole effort could ultimately still implode. But after a rocky reception last week, there’s been a sharp shift in tone among senators from both parties after a bipartisan group of 10 senators announced their outline last Thursday and as pressure is building on the narrowly divided Congress to deliver.
Liberals such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said Monday that they might be willing to accept a smaller package now if there are “irrevocable” commitments from Democratic moderates to pass a larger bill along straight party-lines through a process known as budget reconciliation. Moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin signaled an openness to moving on reconciliation as long as the bipartisan effort was exhausted.
And even senior Republicans suggested there could be enough GOP senators backing such a plan to overcome a 60-vote threshold and any filibuster attempt, assuming the final proposal resembles the outline that the group put forward last week.
“I think there would be substantial Republican support,” predicted Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican and minority whip.
Democratic leaders said Monday they want the five Democratic senators who have cut the deal to say they would back the reconciliation process given that their support would be essential to pass such a measure along straight party-lines in the 50-50 Senate. That, they say, is critical to telling much of the caucus to vote for a smaller package now in order to get their priorities in the next legislative vehicle.
That means the focus is squarely on two of their moderates – both Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat who is leading the bipartisan talks.
Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and the Senate’s most critical swing vote who is part of the bipartisan group, said Monday he’d back a reconciliation bill assuming the bipartisan bill got a “fair look.”
“I’d like to make sure that both of them get a fair look and see,” Manchin said. “We are looking at everything.”
Those assurances are essential, said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who said that question came up repeatedly during a caucus lunch last week.
“Will the Democrats who are part of this be with us on reconciliation on what is not included? I think that’s an important question. … That’s a question that’s come up with several times and it’s a legitimate question,” Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said.
One of the Democrats in the group, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, said Monday she would back the reconciliation effort – and predicted her four other Democratic colleagues would as well.
“It’s my understanding that everybody has said that they can support reconciliation in some form. Now the devil is in the details as we know,” Shaheen said Monday.
Blumenthal criticized the group’s effort as “very, very paltry and disappointing” and said he’s “running out of patience” over bipartisan talks that have dragged on in various forms for months. But the senator said if there’s an “irrevocable commitment” on the next reconciliation package, then, “I could hold my nose and vote for this package.”
Details of the bipartisan infrastructure’s plan are still not yet public. The group is expected to unveil the proposal to their respective caucuses in more detail Tuesday during each parties’ lunches. The proposal includes $1.2 trillion in spending over eight years and more than $570 billion in new spending.
The group has been less forthcoming about how it would finance its proposal. But the senators have talked about including provisions to charge mileage for individuals who use electric cars, tougher enforcement at the IRS for individuals who don’t pay taxes, repurposing unspent money from the Covid relief bill and creating an infrastructure bank to help cover the cost of financing new projects. There’s also discussion about raising the gas tax subject to inflation – but that and other proposals have faced resistance from the White House.
Last week, progressives voiced concerns both privately and publicly that a bipartisan infrastructure plan could undermine the caucus’ ability to pass the larger bill down the line. In a closed-door caucus meeting, progressives stood up one after another to tell members that they their votes shouldn’t be taken for granted after Sinema said she would try to pursue a deal with Republicans.
But, some progressives said their concerns have been eased in recent days with promises from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that he’d move on a parallel track with the bipartisan group working on their proposal at the same time that he pushes ahead on reconciliation. That process would allow Democrats to include more of their priorities and pass a bill with a simple majority.
Leading progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also didn’t shut the door on the bipartisan framework.
Warren said the country needed an infrastructure bill that covered “all our needs and that includes roads and bridges and childcare and all the pieces in between.”
“How we get there is what we are still talking about, but it has to have all the parts,” she said.
“It seems like a new lane just opened up,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, told CNN. “Leader Schumer has said that very publicly. Executing on it is still TBD, but that’s the plan and it’s the necessary plan.”
Whitehouse, who has pushed to include climate change provisions in the proposal, said he could get behind a smaller package “as long as the second path is real and will address the emergency that we are facing.”
But some others are more skeptical.
“No climate, no deal,” said Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. “My mother always said, ‘You don’t get dessert until after you eat the main course.’ The main course for infrastructure this year is climate. And if that’s not included, then I will not be voting for it.”
Both Republican and Democratic leaders are viewing it as an opportunity for each side to secure some victories.
For Democrats, cementing a bipartisan framework could unlock the ability for leadership to move another, more robust infrastructure plan using a special process known as reconciliation. The hope for Democrats is once moderates secured a modest win, they would be more willing to vote for a larger package that includes an overhaul of the country’s care economy from home health workers to paid family leave to a potential overhaul of the way Americans pay for prescription drugs.
Republicans on the other hand view the framework as an opportunity for their members to vote “yes” on to the popular, traditional pieces of infrastructure without voting for changes to their 2017 tax law passed under then-President Donald Trump.
“If there is a bipartisan deal on infrastructure pieces and all that is left is voting for all the tax increases and all the social spending, it would be awfully hard to get some of those moderate Democrats to be for that,” Thune said.
The development of the plan has come as Biden has been abroad, but White House aides have been closely involved, helping steer the group away from ideas like indexing the gas tax to inflation.
“The White House has said no way, no how. They are a party to these conversations for better or worse. You are going to have to satisfy the administration because the President in the end will have to sign it,” Thune said.
This week, Democrats will also begin ramping up efforts to pass another infrastructure bill using reconciliation with Schumer meeting with Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont this week. Other key chairmen, including Sen. Ron Wyden, have also been working behind the scenes to ready proposals that could become part of a Democratic-only infrastructure bill if the caucus decides to move in that direction.
Sanders said it was his preference for a bipartisan infrastructure bill to simply be wrapped into a larger bill that would just pass through reconciliation, but he admitted it was too soon to make those decisions. He also said that he wouldn’t back a bipartisan infrastructure bill if there wasn’t a “progressive way to pay for it.”
“We don’t know what’s in it,” Sanders said.