Biden's bridge to nowhere

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent
·7-min read

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s push to make his $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill a truly bipartisan affair is running up against a predictable but intractable problem: a lack of Republicans willing to come along.

Even as the White House buzzes with meetings and as Cabinet secretaries troop up to Capitol Hill — as they did on Tuesday — the two parties are so far apart, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which they resolve their differences anytime soon.

If that dynamic holds, Biden may be forced to use the same brute legislative force he did to pass the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. But doing so a second time will be more perilous politically, potentially opening him to Republican attacks about big-spending, high-taxing liberals.

For now, he is making a show of trying to reach across the aisle — only to find his hand slapped away. The question is how long these overtures will last and whether they can soften a determined Republican opposition.

U.S. President Joe Biden pauses during a meeting with the leadership of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in the Oval Office of the White House April 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
President Biden at a meeting with the leadership of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in the Oval Office on Tuesday. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

“This is not an infrastructure plan,” went a recent complaint from Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee. He described the infrastructure plan as a “vehicle to advance an extreme socialist agenda.” The GOP believes that can be a winning message for next year’s congressional midterms, even if polling so far says otherwise.

For the White House, infrastructure is a way to address racial and climate goals. The plan includes funds to repair water pipes lined with lead, install high-speed internet in rural communities, subsidize a shift to electric vehicles and better support home-health-care workers.

For congressional Republicans, infrastructure is the stuff you make with concrete, asphalt and steel. They have not taken kindly to Biden’s more expansive definition. “It seems there is little, if anything, that they do not consider, or call, infrastructure,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., at a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee to consider the infrastructure plan, known for now as the American Jobs Plan.

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) asks questions before the Senate Appropriations Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on April 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/AFP via Getty Images)
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Tuesday. (Chip Somodevilla/AFP via Getty Images)

With the secretaries of transportation (Pete Buttigieg), commerce (Gina Raimondo) and housing and urban development (Marcia Fudge), as well the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (Michael Regan), seated before him, Shelby made clear just how little he and other Republicans have been swayed by Biden’s entreaties thus far. The infrastructure plan, Shelby said with a heavy dose of sarcasm, “proposes to be all things to all people, I guess, for all time.”

The four Cabinet members were on Capitol Hill to sell the president’s plan, but Republicans didn’t exactly play the role of willing customer. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the Republicans the White House has hoped to persuade, showed little enthusiasm. She criticized Buttigieg for proposed green vehicle subsidies and Fudge for “taking a very heavy-handed approach” on affordable housing.

Later, Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota pressed Buttigieg on where the Biden administration hoped to find $2.3 trillion to pay for the infrastructure plan. Hoeven and other Republicans want “user fees” like tolls to pay for infrastructure, while Biden has proposed raising the corporate tax rate, which under former President Donald Trump fell precipitously from 35 percent to 21 percent.

The Biden administration does not want to raise fees on ordinary Americans, and Buttigieg said the infrastructure plan would be “fully paid for through adjustments to our corporate tax structure,” a euphemism that isn’t likely to placate Republicans who do not want to raise the tax rate on corporations. Biden’s “adjustment” would bring the tax rate to 28 percent.

Residents inspect the floodwaters flowing from the Tittabawassee River into the lower part of downtown on May 20, 2020 in Midland, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Residents inspect floodwater flowing from the Tittabawassee River in Midland, Mich., in May of last year. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Hoeven was one of 10 legislators (five Democrats, four Republicans and Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats) invited to the White House on Monday to talk about infrastructure. During the meeting, Biden said he was “prepared to compromise and prepared to see what we can do and what we can come together on.”

Meanwhile, at a Senate hearing on the rural economy that took place on Tuesday, Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania — a relative moderate in today’s heavily Trumpian GOP — denounced Biden’s plan as “government welfare” intent on undermining the economic recovery. “I wish I understood why Democrats are so determined to prevent us from getting back to the best economy of my lifetime,” Toomey said.

None of this is encouraging for an administration that wants to move quickly. Even if the summer of 2021 proves less tumultuous than the summer of 2020, waiting until September could drain momentum from the infrastructure push. But if Biden and Republicans can’t agree on what infrastructure means, or how to pay for it, just how much energy should the White House expend on bringing along clearly skeptical members like Collins?

Some allies are already urging Biden to wrap up negotiations with Republicans because, they suspect, those talks will come to naught. “I personally don’t think the Republicans are serious about addressing the major crises facing this country,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told Politico on Monday. “Maybe I’m wrong, but we’re certainly not going to wait for an indefinite period of time.”

Some members of the GOP are drafting their own infrastructure plan, but it is substantially smaller than the one Biden has proposed. They took exactly the same tactic with the coronavirus relief package, proposing about a third of what the president had. For all his paeans to bipartisanship, Biden rejected that proposal out of hand.

The Brent Spence Bridge spans the Ohio River on the Ohio-Kentucky border in Cincinnati, Ohio on April 2, 2021. (Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images)
The Brent Spence Bridge spans the Ohio River on the Ohio-Kentucky border in Cincinnati. (Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images)

Infrastructure is not the only word that Biden has redefined. His administration treats a proposal as bipartisan if it enjoys broad support from American people, including from Republican voters, with the question of support from congressional Republicans relegated to irrelevance. That was the case with the coronavirus relief package, and it looks so far to be the case with the infrastructure proposal too.

Biden’s prior success may convince him that trying to negotiate with Republicans is pointless. Democrats won a key victory earlier this month when the Senate parliamentarian decreed they could use a process called budget reconciliation to pass the infrastructure bill, which would require only a simple majority as opposed to 60 votes. It had been previously thought Democrats could not use reconciliation a second time, after having used it to pass the coronavirus relief package.

That tactic could prove challenging in its own right, because centrist Democrats like Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have indicated they want bipartisan endorsement of the infrastructure plan. Winning their support may not be possible, but it may also not make a difference, predicted Rep. Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor of Florida who now represents the state as a Democrat in the House of Representatives. He noted that Arizona is a rapidly growing state, while West Virginia is a long-suffering one. “They need roads and bridges and infrastructure too,” Crist told Yahoo News.

When Crist first arrived on Capitol Hill in 2017, the New York Times asked him whether a bitterly divided Washington could come to agreement on anything. “Infrastructure, I think, is a good place,” he answered.

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