The bipartisan infrastructure bill making its precarious way through the Senate was always a cornerstone of Joe Biden’s presidency. Now, it’s even more vital for an administration badly needing wins as the White House struggles to navigate multiple crises.
The President had hoped by now to be able to tout victory over the pandemic, but the nation is embarking on another grueling battle against the Delta variant. The new reality threatens to exhaust an already dispirited citizenry, slow the economy’s bounce back and exacerbate the chain reaction of problems caused by the pandemic. In turn, it could dampen Biden’s own approval ratings and further damage the chances of Democrats in next year’s midterm elections.
With public health officials warning of the possibility of several hundred thousand Covid-19 infections a day, it seems that the pandemic will now stretch at least through the fall and winter and potentially well into next year, further narrowing Biden’s room for political maneuvering and increasing the weight of responsibility on his White House.
But after hours of debate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer moved to cut off debate on the infrastructure package on Thursday night, setting up swift passage of the legislation, although exact timing of a final vote remained unclear. Democrats hoped the fragile and rare bipartisan support for the legislation would hold in order for the measure to be sent on to the House, where there is no guarantee of passage.
The $1 trillion dollar package of spending on roads, bridges, rail, electric vehicles, high speed Internet and other priorities is the primary, and possibly only, exhibit of one of the defining principles of Biden’s presidency – the notion that Republicans and Democrats can work together for national goals.
A bipartisan bill signing ceremony at the White House would enable the President to tell voters that he had kept his word when most pundits and Washington politicians doubted he could overcome bitter political divides.
That image, likely to feature heavily in Democratic midterm election advertising, would be so powerful that ex-President Donald Trump, whose own failed infrastructure initiatives descended into self-parody, has been trying to browbeat GOP senators into pulling support for Biden’s plan.
Biden’s team insists his presidency has reset the nation’s course after what Democrats viewed as the destruction of the Trump years. That has involved saving American democracy, restoring the country’s reputation abroad and presiding over the restarting of the country’s jobs engine. And the West Wing has been pushing ahead and creating momentum in areas where Biden does not need the help of Congress. On Thursday, for instance, the President signed an executive order designed to boost the electric vehicle industry that aims to ensure that 50% of vehicles sold in the US by 2030 are electric. So his aides push back hard against the notion that Biden’s presidency is itself in crisis.
But a big win in the Senate on infrastructure would nevertheless come as a moment of relief in an administration also dealing with a flurry of other problems from Afghanistan, to misfiring nuclear diplomacy with Iran and the uncertainty of this week’s stop gap solution that saved millions of renters threatened with eviction from being turned out of their homes.
The infrastructure bill has a long way to go before it becomes law — its fate relies on Democrats muscling through a $3.5 trillion spending plan through the Senate to appease progressives who say the bipartisan bill is too limited.
That Democratic measure will need to benefit from reconciliation – a limited maneuver that can be used to pass bills with budgetary implications in the Senate – in order to avoid the 60-vote threshold and allow passage on a party-line vote.
The passage of the more narrow infrastructure bill with a bipartisan vote would validate other aspects of Biden’s approach — for instance, allowing the Senate time to work its will in line with the President’s faith in a body in which he once served that few other observers share.
Biden could also claim some new momentum in his presidency in its crucial first year when his political capital and authority are at their zenith but with the difficulties of a 50-50 Senate meaning that his legislative record is fairly threadbare other than a huge $1.9 trillion Covid rescue plan passed in March.
A successful Senate vote might also ease some of the fears of Democrats who face the prospect of tough questions from constituents this summer about the efficacy of the Biden presidency in its first seven months and with midterms looming next year that are historically difficult for a new commander-in-chief’s party. CNN’s Manu Raju and Melanie Zanona reported this week that some moderate Democrats in swing districts are becoming increasingly anxious about their ability to hold on to their seats. The lawmakers believe that Biden’s economic message — even on an issue like the expansion of the child tax credit — has failed to break through to many voters.
The dynamic was on display when these Democrats refused to take a difficult vote on a measure that had little chance of becoming law — an extension of a moratorium on evictions of Americans behind on their rent because they lost their jobs during the pandemic. That impasse forced the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to order a new moratorium that Biden admitted again on Thursday may not pass muster with the Supreme Court.
“I went ahead and did it, but here’s the deal, I can’t guarantee you the court won’t rule that you don’t have that authority. But at least we’ll have the ability, if we have to appeal, to keep this going for a month, at least. I hope longer,” Biden said.
The passage of an infrastructure bill could hand ammunition to these Democrats who have been disturbed by early polling ahead of the midterms. But the accompanying $3 trillion dollar spending plan could be a poison chalice for them, since it will play into what appears to be an effective GOP attack that Democrats are the party of massive taxation and spending.
Biden has effectively argued that government can be used as a force for good to lift up Americans who have not shared the fruits of years of economic prosperity. A bipartisan deal would deliver on that goal. And the larger spending package would allow him to say that he had made good on what could be a generational achievement — reshaping the economy to benefit working and middle class Americans.
Another reason why the choreography of the infrastructure and spending deals is so important to Biden is that the future prospects for his agenda are so difficult. Democrats countrywide are, for instance, calling for lawmakers in Washington to pass a sweeping voting rights bill to counter efforts by Republican-run states to make it harder to vote and easier to interfere in the outcome of elections. The state measures are being written based on Trump’s lies about election fraud in last year’s presidential vote.
There is little chance that the voting measure will pass in the Senate owing to the GOP’s filibuster tactics that require a 60-vote super majority to pass major legislation. Moderate Democrats including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema oppose any move by their party to overturn the time honored Senate rule, meaning that the GOP has an effective veto on legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is expected to seek to bring a scaled-down voting bill to the floor in the coming weeks but the move is likely to be largely symbolic given blanket GOP opposition.
So, as far as legislative achievements are concerned in the run-up to the midterm elections, a bipartisan infrastructure bill and an accompanying spending package — assuming Democrats can succeed in passing both through a restive Congress — may be as good as it gets for the President.