Did Republicans let Democrats off the hook with new infrastructure deal?

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

It depends, or if you prefer the story about the Zen masterwe’ll see. Late yesterday, Mitt Romney and Joe Manchin announced that a bipartisan group of senators reached an agreement on a framework for infrastructure spending. The White House signaled potential acceptance shortly thereafter:

Republican Susan Collins and Democrat Mark Warner publicly confirmed the agreement and the White House engagement on it. Warner told CNN’s Morgan Rimmer that “we would not be going to the White House tomorrow if there wasn’t one,” and it’s fair to assume that the White House wouldn’t take the meeting without a consensus plan on the table.

So what’s the plan? Relatively speaking, it’s a win for the GOP as the top-line number is significantly lower than Democrats’ initial $2.2 trillion demand. It also appears to be funded entirely through already-allocated monies rather than tax hikes or new levies:

Senators declined to disclose details of their agreement but stressed that the group had agreed not just on the spending levels for various infrastructure projects but also on how to pay for the package. An earlier framework reached by the senators — which did not have White House approval — included $974 billion of spending over five years, of which $579 billion was for new projects and initiatives.

One official directly familiar with the framework said the revised level was $559 billion in new spending because senators planned to repurpose roughly $20 billion that had previously been allocated to broadband projects, although others close to the negotiations disputed how that figure was tabulated. …

Though the agreement could amount to one of the most significant investments in infrastructure in recent years, the tentative bipartisan deal still falls far short of Biden’s initial $2.2 trillion vision that he outlined in what he called the American Jobs Plan earlier this year. In that plan, Biden proposed paying for new spending by raising the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent. The White House has also released a separate $1.8 trillion package meant to invest in “human infrastructure” such as education and paid leave.

Many Republicans objected to the idea of raising the corporate tax rate, however, and White House officials have looked for alternatives that would help them offset the new costs.

The biggest win for Republicans was shearing off all of the progressive hobby-horse proposals from the original bill. Bernie Sanders has spent the last few weeks pouting about that, but infrastructure is one area in which Biden can get a bipartisan win with a moderate approach. The GOP wants to spend money almost as much as Democrats do, as long as it’s focused on non-partisan projects.

So this is a big win for Republicans, then? We’ll see, said the Zen master. What got shorn from this bill might come back in another — under reconciliation:

Democratic leaders have long said Biden’s expansive infrastructure agenda could pass through multiple tracks, meaning one bipartisan package that spends money on traditional public-works projects and another one that funds Democratic priorities that could pass using a special budgetary process that circumvents a filibuster in the Senate.

To that end, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Schumer met with administration officials Wednesday night on Capitol Hill to begin mapping out both legislative strategies for the president’s infrastructure plan.

Democrats will get another shot at reconciliation in the next budget process. They could use this bill as a down payment of sorts on their infrastructure promises, and then make up the rest — including the tax hikes blocked by the GOP. (Don’t forget that Republicans used reconciliation for the 2017 tax cuts.) The spending could climb to as high as $6 trillion, assuming that Democrats can find the pay-fors that reconciliation requires.

Charles C.W. Cooke can’t believe Republicans fell into this trap:

The deal that Chad Pergram is reporting fixes this issue for the Democrats, in that it allows them to recruit the 60 bipartisan votes for the Manchin-friendly infrastructure package and to turn around once that’s done and get everything else they want at a simple 50-vote threshold. If Schumer is telling the truth when he says that the Senate will do both bills — and again, one can never be sure — Republicans have decided to give up all their negotiating power and, in effect, to permit the spending of trillions of dollars (the Democrats want six trillion!) that they oppose.

So the Republicans just suffered a big loss? We’ll see, said the Zen master. Let’s not forget that Schumer doesn’t need this bill in order to do reconciliation in the next budget. Without this bill, it would actually be easier to argue for a singular massive infrastructure package.  Functionally this changes nothing for Schumer, and it might actually make it a bit more difficult to get to 50 on reconciliation if Joe Manchin and some of the other Democratic negotiators in this deal refuse to stab their GOP colleagues in the back. Without this bill, that tension doesn’t exist at all, but this deal will likely make it more politically difficult for Schumer to use reconciliation on additional infrastructure spending.

Manchin addressed that point this morning, in fact:

In other words, Schumer’s probably just putting a good face on a loss with this vague pledge. With an infrastructure bill passed, Schumer’s more likely to use his one shot at reconciliation on other priorities, such as an expansion of ObamaCare.

So … it’s a win for Republicans? We’ll see, said the Zen master. Any passage of infrastructure spending will help Joe Biden, and the new spending might boost his standing in the areas where the money flows. Biden’s been floundering ever since the passage of COVID-19 relief in March. He needs a solid gain to show he’s making some sort of progress.

But will that really matter in the midterms? We’ll see, said … ah, you know.