Senate GOP mad at Biden for threatening to veto infrastructure bill. But is it just kabuki?

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

I’m enjoying the drama today over what Biden and Pelosi said about not passing the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill unless the other component, the “human infrastructure” bill, also passes via reconciliation.

Senate Republicans seem very mad about that ultimatum. Emphasis on “seem.”

Because two things are clear. One: There was always going to be a reconciliation component to this. Joe Manchin has never given the GOP reason to believe he’d walk away from the reconciliation bill if they compromised with him on the roads-and-bridges part of infrastructure. This was a two-step process and Republicans negotiated in that knowledge. Now they’re acting offended that Biden wants both pieces to pass before he signs either. Why? Did they think they were going to convince Manchin to tank the reconciliation bill if the bipartisan bill ended up being signed into law first?

Two: Biden and Pelosi aren’t trying to pressure Republicans with their “both bills or bust” ultimatum, they’re trying to pressure Manchin. They’re also (a little) worried — or, more specifically, the progressives in their base are worried — that Manchin might change his mind on the reconciliation bill if he gets the bipartisan bill through first. Progressives have reason to distrust him, after all, since he’s resisted every plea from them to end the filibuster. Biden and Pelosi are trying to soothe them with their ultimatum, assuring them that they won’t allow Manchin to let down the left on infrastructure.

Senate Republicans know all this and yet they’re still treating Biden’s ultimatum as some sort of betrayal of their compromise. Why?

“This two-track approach has been the expectation from everyone involved since the beginning. There would be no bipartisan talks at all if it were any other way,” notes Benjy Sarlin, correctly. “The q is whether D’s conditioning *passage* of one on the other is enough for R’s to walk away.” Yeah, if there was a “betrayal” here by Biden and Pelosi it was them saying out loud what was supposed to be a tacit understanding between the two sides. Republicans would join with Dems to pass a roads-and-bridges infrastructure bill and then Dems would turn around and pass a “human infrastructure” bill on a party-line vote via reconciliation; Republicans would then pretend to be surprised that Manchin had “double-crossed” them and outraged at yet another ginormous spending outlay.

By issuing their ultimatum up front, though, Biden and Pelosi exposed the game being played and made Senate Republicans look like cucks for compromising with them knowing that a reconciliation bill was in the works. Now, in order to save face, those same Republicans are suddenly demanding that Manchin promise not to do a reconciliation bill if the bipartisan bill passes:

If the bipartisan deal falls apart Manchin will suddenly face a tough choice on whether to tank the reconciliation bill, infuriating progressives (again), or to do the whole damned infrastructure package via reconciliation, cutting Republicans entirely out of the process after months of chattering about how important bipartisanship is. Biden and Pelosi may have screwed him yesterday.

But in their semi-defense, they might have felt they had no choice. Remember that Pelosi has only a narrow majority in the House. There are more than enough AOC-style progressives there to tank anything that comes over from the Senate. Progressives may have told Biden behind the scenes that they don’t trust Manchin to do a reconciliation bill if a bipartisan bill passes first and therefore they won’t pass a standalone bipartisan bill through the House. They want both bills in front of them or they’re not doing anything. Faced with a revolt like that, Biden and Pelosi may have issued their ultimatum to reassure progs that there’d be no bait-and-switch in which Manchin does a deal with the GOP on roads and bridges and then walks away from the “soft” reconciliation spending on paid leave, etc, that the left really cares about. We’re gonna make it a package deal, Biden and Pelosi assured them.

Except now Senate Republicans are embarrassed because the entire GOP base sees them as complicit in passing that “package deal.” Republican voters are asking, understandably, why McConnell’s caucus didn’t issue the threat from the very beginning that Moran is issuing today: “You can either do a bipartisan bill with us or a reconciliation bill on your own but you can’t do both. Choose.” What would Manchin have chosen?

Maybe this is the outcome Biden wanted, though. Liam Donovan has a point here:

Maybe Biden and Pelosi issued the “both bills or bust” ultimatum expecting that the GOP would balk and then they could pass an even bigger infrastructure bill via reconciliation. That would be just fine with Biden since then Democrats would take sole credit for it — if, if, if Manchin is willing to do it. The risk is that if Republicans walk away Manchin might get cold feet and decide that no infrastructure bill at all should pass. I don’t think he’d do that but you never know whether he’s feeling more like a Democrat or a Republican on a given day.