How hard a line should progressives take in infrastructure talks?

·Senior Editor
·9-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

A bipartisan group of senators is pushing forward with efforts to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Reached after months of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans, the proposal would include $550 billion in new spending to improve the nation's roads and bridges, bolster public transportation, expand high-speed internet access, replace lead pipes and modernize the country’s power grid.

The bill represents the first piece of a two-pronged strategy to pass President Biden’s sweeping infrastructure agenda, which would represent the most significant change to the government’s role in the economy in a generation if enacted. Biden and congressional Democrats have split that plan into two parts: a bipartisan bill focused on physical infrastructure that can garner the support of at least 10 Republican senators to avoid a filibuster, and a larger bill centered on what the president has called “human infrastructure” that Democrats can pass on their own using reconciliation — a provision that allows budget-focused legislation to advance with a simple majority.

Now that a bipartisan deal has been reached on the first bill, attention has shifted to the debate over the size and contents of the more ambitious follow-up. In July, Democrats unveiled an outline for $3.5 trillion in spending toward health care, childcare, higher education and curbing climate change. That bill will need the support of all 50 Senate Democrats, which puts moderates like Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin in the familiar position of being able to block parts of Biden’s agenda that they feel are too aggressive.

That narrow path to passing also means that progressive Democrats in the House and Senate have the power to make similar demands. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders and “Squad” member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have said they will not support the bipartisan bill unless it’s accompanied by the larger reconciliation bill — a stance that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has taken as well. After months of negotiations across the aisle, the future of Biden’s infrastructure agenda now rests on resolving what could become a heated fight within the Democratic Party over the size and scope of the second bill.

Why there’s debate

Many on the left have called on progressive lawmakers to take a firm stand to ensure their priorities are addressed in the final bill. Of primary concern, they argue, is making sure the infrastructure plan includes aggressive steps to decarbonize the U.S. economy to combat climate change. A similar case has been made for progressives to take a stand to ensure that the “care economy” is properly funded and tax increases on big corporations and wealthy individuals are included.

With Biden’s presidential legacy deeply tied to passing his infrastructure plan, some political analysts argue that progressives have the leverage to stand firm knowing he will likely back whatever plan his party settles on. The $3.5 trillion framework already represents a major compromise from an earlier $6 trillion plan that Sanders proposed.

In the eyes of many moderates, progressive lawmakers would be playing a dangerous game if they tried to extract too many of their demands. Too strong a stance could sink both bills and waste what could be the last chance for Democrats to pass major legislation to address the country’s critical infrastructure needs while they have control of Congress. Conservatives who support the idea of improvements to roads and bridges have also accused Democrats of stretching the definition of infrastructure to fit whatever is on the liberal wish list.

While it’s true that progressives have de facto veto power over both bills, that also applies to moderate Democrats — who have, according to some observers, a more persuasive argument to make to voters in calling for restraint. It’s also possible that a handful of Republicans could undermine progressives’ leverage by backing the second bill as a tactical move to keep its price tag down.

What’s next

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he is prepared to keep the Senate in session for as long as it takes to pass both the physical infrastructure plan and a budget blueprint that would allow Democrats to begin working on the larger human infrastructure bill. Final votes on the second bill are reportedly not expected until the fall.

Perspectives

Stand firm

Progressives hold a tremendous amount of leverage

“Bringing Republicans out of their natural obstructionism and into a real legislative coalition is an impressive feat of Biden-style negotiating. But it’s worthless to bring Republicans aboard if that comes with the loss of progressive Democrats. If Biden can’t build serious bridges to progressives already suspicious about his lack of urgency on issues ranging from protecting ballot access to immigration reform, he’s not going to get the money to build literal bridges.” — Max Burns, Daily Beast

Any plan that doesn’t include aggressive climate provisions is a nonstarter

“When centrist Democrats argue against new spending, they often bring up the interests of future generations — whatever bill we run up now, our grandchildren will have to pay off. But when it comes to climate change, the opposite is true. The costs of mitigating and preparing for climate change are very high, but the costs of not doing those things are even higher.” — Jake Bittle, New York Times

Major investment in the care economy is an absolute must

“Not surprisingly, two issues left out of the bipartisan infrastructure deal are climate change and the care economy, both areas where those in power delay taking essential action. Similar to how we are exhausting the planet through fracking, mining and pollution, we are exhausting care workers by making them work long hours for poverty wages. Investing in the nation’s care infrastructure will create millions of critically needed jobs.” — Rebekah Entralgo, Seattle Times

Progressives should act as if this is the only chance they’ll get to pass climate legislation

“It is likely that there won't be more than one infrastructure bill, at least in this Congress. Passing anything, as we have seen over the last four months, is a gigantic pain in the neck. Doing some kind of crummy highway bill would likely eat up a lot of the juicier pay-fors (which are required if Democrats don't get rid of the filibuster) in the form of modest tax hikes on the rich and corporations, making any ambitious climate bill even harder.” — Ryan Cooper, The Week

If progressives don’t apply pressure, Biden’s plan will shrink even more

“The pressure to make concessions in pursuit of bipartisanship will come from the right and from the center. Some of that pressure is genuine, some is in bad faith. But all of it figures into a delicate negotiation where Biden’s team has to decide what elements of their agenda they are willing to scale back or sacrifice. Counterpressure from progressives can help the White House stand firm as the legislation continues to be shaped.” — David Karpf, Washington Post

There should be no compromise on taxing the rich to pay for the plan

“Republicans will gripe about the price tag, and weak-willed Democrats will be inclined to listen to that griping. But if the voters are aware of how much money can be obtained by taxing the rich and multinational corporations, the sentiment for substantial spending—not just $3.5 trillion but something closer to the $6 trillion that Sanders and others have discussed—will be sufficient for a win.” — John Nichols, The Nation

Compromise

Even an imperfect infrastructure bill would still be a major win for the country

“Amid all the wrangling, and despite the bill’s shortcomings, the point remains: The best should not be the enemy of the good. A partially paid-for measure that upgrades the U.S. infrastructure — and, probably, enhances the economy’s long-term capacity to grow — would be pretty good.” — Editorial, Washington Post

Progressives must recognize that compromise is how big things get done

“The country could still end up without any progress being made if progressive Democrats, through their intransigence, manage to screw-up the infrastructure deal because they aren’t willing to compromise. If that happens they will also be showing a total lack of understanding of how the Founding Fathers intended our government to work.” — Peter Rosenstein, Washington Blade

Moderates have a much more convincing argument

“If Democratic centrists can point to a significant bipartisan deal, like the bipartisan infrastructure bill, then it becomes much harder for liberals to argue that bipartisanship is impossible.” — Conn Carroll, Washington Examiner

The left’s demands go far beyond any definition of the word ‘infrastructure’

“It’s like one of those game shows where you can cram as much stuff as possible into a shopping cart. So long as progressives can claim that the items on their wish list fit in the infrastructure cart, they think they can make it happen. But if the moderates fill a cart solely with the traditional stuff, it will make it infinitely harder for Democrats to claim a second cart is actually infrastructure, no matter the terminology.” — Jonah Goldberg, Boston Herald

The left should be happy that any deal can get through such a divided Congress

“Indeed, given the 2021 reality, Democrats should be celebrating a possible bipartisan trillion-dollar plus infrastructure bill and the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan as significant first steps. Instead, progressives are turning their fire on the President for failing to govern as if he had LBJ- or FDR-like clout.” — Jeff Greenfield, Politico

Biden has political motivations to push back against progressive demands

“Mr. Biden is a lifetime practitioner of legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s adage that ‘if you want to get along, you have to go along.’ Instinctively, Mr. Biden chose to go along with the Washington-based takeover of his party by the arriviste left. Result: He has fallen fast to 50% approval. He is sinking. How long will his old pals, the moderate Democrats, hang on for the descent?” — Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal

GOP support for the bipartisan bill undercuts progressives’ leverage

“If Republicans show Democratic moderates that deal-making has a future, those moderates will be empowered to push back against the left, forcing the reconciliation bill to be much smaller than what’s currently on the table. But if Republicans kill the [bipartisan infrastructure framework], not only will they prove the progressive skeptics right. They will be trying the patience of even moderate Democrats — and making more progressive policy more likely.” — Matthew Yglesias, Bloomberg

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