Sen. Rob Portman, the longtime Washington veteran and savvy deal-cutter, is on the cusp of achieving a major bipartisan achievement that would amount to a capstone of his three decades of public service: The Senate’s passage of a roughly $1 trillion package to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.
But the bevy of Ohio Republicans looking to replace the retiring senator in 2022 have a sharply different view. They are roundly criticizing the agreement as a budget-busting bill the US can’t afford, aligning themselves squarely with former President Donald Trump who has called on the GOP to oppose the sweeping proposal.
“The current infrastructure bill is filled with the far left’s wasteful wish list including the Green New Deal, gender identity and empowering woke bureaucrats,” said Scott Guthrie, the campaign manager for Senate candidate Josh Mandel.
The divide between Republicans on Capitol Hill and in Senate primaries isn’t unique to Ohio, reflecting how Trump’s influence now largely rests with the primary electorate, rather than with sitting GOP senators. While still more than half of the Senate GOP Conference is expected to oppose the bill, 17 senators joined with 50 Democrats on the first procedural vote to advance the bill – with the support of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.
In intraparty contests throughout the country, Republican candidates are lining up against the bipartisan deal – and lining up with Trump – reflecting not only the heightened partisanship in American politics but also how primaries incentivize candidates to demonstrate purity to their base voters.
The massive bipartisan infrastructure package, called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, features $550 billion in new federal spending on roads, bridges, passenger and freight rail, the electric grid, broadband Internet access, water infrastructure, transit systems and charging stations for electric vehicles.
But many Republican candidates are conflating the Senate bill with a $3.5 trillion Democratic bill to expand health care, childcare, education and climate change programs. Democratic leaders are trying to push both bills through Congress side-by-side, while House and Senate Republicans universally oppose the $3.5 trillion plan.
The GOP senators who support the bipartisan infrastructure bill note that there are major differences between their bill and the partisan package. They say it’s essential for Republicans to show that they’re not just a knee-jerk opposition party and can instead find consensus on pressing national problems important to voters.
“They’re in the middle of a primary,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican who backs the plan, referring to GOP Senate candidates. “So when you’re in a campaign, you don’t have time to go into a group and spend 10 minutes, 15 minutes, as I have, explaining why this makes sense, and why I think it could lessen the damage of the bill that (Democrats) will follow up with.”
Asked if he believes that Trump is influencing the views of the candidates, Tillis said: “I’m sure that has an influence.”
Yet Trump’s opposition to the plan has had little influence in the halls of the Senate, where even GOP senators who are up for reelection – like Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Todd Young of Indiana – voted to move forward with the bill on the initial procedural vote.
Murkowski, who will face Trump-backed challenger Kelly Tshibaka if she runs for reelection next year, was central to cutting the deal. Murkowski was blunt when asked if Trump’s opposition would affect any GOP votes in the Senate: “It hasn’t affected mine.”
Young refused to weigh in on Trump’s view of the bill, declining several requests for comment on the topic. But the first-term Indiana Republican indicated he was likely to support the bill “unless I find something really objectionable — and I haven’t so far.”
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the Republican whip who hasn’t declared yet whether he’s running for another term next year, hasn’t ruled out supporting the bill on final passage. But he had a warning for the GOP.
“I think the politics work for both sides,” Thune said. “I think that if you’re a Republican you want to prove that you’re not just here to completely block and stop the entire agenda if you find areas that are good for you know the country and then you want to be a part of trying to solve those problems.”
GOP senator urges Trump to take credit for deal
In Tillis’ state of North Carolina, the consensus is clear: The three top GOP candidates —former Gov. Pat McCrory, Rep. Ted Budd and former Rep. Mark Walker — are flatly opposed to the bill.
“Ted is against the legislation as it currently stands,” said Budd adviser Jonathan Felts.
“Gov. McCrory believes that the positive items in the package cannot overcome the problematic aspects of it,” said McCrory adviser Jordan Shaw.
And Walker tweeted, “The small portion of the infrastructure bill for paving roads will be needed by our children for driving to their local Bank of China branch to pay off their share of the national debt.”
But Republicans who back the bill say it’s sorely needed to help rebuild roads, bridges, waterways and bolster rural broadband. They note it would not raise taxes – and is paid for by a range of measures, such as redirecting Covid relief funds.
On Thursday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected that the measure would raise the deficit by $256 billion over the next decade. But bill sponsors said that an array of other provisions not fully accounted for by the CBO would ensure the bill’s costs were fully offset.
On the floor on Wednesday night, Portman made the case for the bill’s importance to Ohio, stressing it would ease congestion on I-75 in his state and help with many of the 44,736 bridges there.
In an interview with CNN, Portman gave a suggestion to the former President.
“I have encouraged President Trump to take credit for this,” Portman said. “President Trump’s effort to raise the level of awareness about the need for infrastructure improvement should help us get this done. He proposed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill. He’s a developer, he understands the need for infrastructure.”
But Trump has made his position clear, calling the legislation a “loser” for the U.S. – without explaining his rationale.
“Don’t do it Republicans — Patriots will never forget! If this deal happens, lots of primaries will be coming your way!” he said in a statement.
It’s not clear many primary candidates are ready to defy him.
None of the top Ohio GOP candidates — Mandel, a former Ohio Treasurer, former Ohio Republican Party chairwoman Jane Timken, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance and businessmen Bernie Moreno and Mike Gibbons — support the deal.
“I would support targeted infrastructure spending that addresses the real needs of roads, bridges and broadband for Ohioans that does not raise taxes or add to the bloated federal deficit, but unfortunately this bill in its current form does not do that,” said Timken in a statement.
Vance said on the Bill Cunningham radio show in July that while “Republicans are bending over backwards to get this deal … really, it’s just a partisan hatchet job. The Democrats are going to clean up later.”
Meanwhile, Democrats are running on the Senate’s bipartisan bill, bolstered by national polls showing broad support for investing in US infrastructure.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, a Senate candidate, told CNN that he has “long advocated for rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges, cleaning up waterways, removing dangerous lead pipes, growing our domestic electric vehicles industry, maintaining strong Buy American and prevailing wage protections, and finally fixing the Brent Spence Bridge in Cincinnati.”
“While there is a lot that Democrats and Republicans do not agree on, rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure is one where we can, and should work together,” he added.
Trump increased the debt by almost $7.8 trillion in office, but only a small minority of Republicans opposed his massive tax cuts and spending during the pandemic.
But Republican candidates are now sharply criticizing President Joe Biden for pushing for the infrastructure bill after already signing into law a $1.9 trillion Covid relief package earlier this year. They point to rising inflation as a major concern; In June consumer prices increased by the most in 13 years, as the economy reopened.
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Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican retiring next year, voted to move ahead with the bill on the first procedural vote and may support it on final passage. He said that it’s easy to mix up a traditional infrastructure bill with the larger Democratic package of social programs.
“I think there are two views of this and two views of how to explain it,” Blunt said. “And there’s some concern that it gets confused with the bigger bill that really is a new government program kind of bill, as opposed to government doing more of what governments always done.”
But at least two top Republicans running for Blunt’s seat — state Attorney General Eric Schmitt and former governor Eric Greitens — oppose the bill. Schmitt called the bill “a reckless spending package that will only add to our growing national debt while Americans are dealing with record inflation.”
And Greitens told CNN, “It is disappointing that some weak RINOs completely caved to Nancy Pelosi and Democrats who want to push irresponsible socialist legislation that jeopardizes the future of all Americans.”
CNN’s Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.