This evening, President Joe Biden published an op-ed in Yahoo News about the infrastructure bill now moving forward on its way to Congress. He called the measure “a once-in-a-generation investment to modernize our infrastructure” and claimed it would “create millions of good-paying jobs and position America to compete with the world and win the 21st century.”
The measure will provide money to repair roads and bridges, replace the lead pipes that still provide water to as many as 10 million households and 400,000 schools and daycares, modernize our electric grid, replace gas-powered buses with electric ones, and cap wells leaking methane that have been abandoned by their owners in the private sector to be cleaned up by the government. It will invest in railroads, airports, and other public transportation; protect coastlines and forests from extreme weather events; and deliver high-speed internet to rural communities.
“This deal is the largest long-term investment in our infrastructure in nearly a century,” Biden wrote. “It is a signal to ourselves, and to the world, that American democracy can work and deliver for the people.”
Biden is making a big pitch for this infrastructure project in part because we need it, of course, and because it is popular, but also because it signals a return to the sort of government both Democrats and Republicans embraced between 1945 and 1980. In that period after World War II, most Americans believed that the government had a role to play in regulating business, providing a basic social safety net, investing in infrastructure, and promoting civil rights. This shared understanding was known as the “liberal consensus.”
With the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, the Republican Party rejected that vision of the government, arguing that, as Reagan said, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” But while Reagan limited that statement with the words “in this present crisis,” Republican leaders since the 1980s have worked to destroy the liberal consensus and take us back to the world of the 1920s, a world in which business leaders also ran the government.
For the very reason that Biden is determined to put through this massive investment in infrastructure, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would like to kill it. Until recently, he has presided over the Senate with the declared plan to kill Democratic bills. He opposes the liberal consensus, wanting to get rid of taxes and stop the government from intervening in the economy. But today’s Republican lawmakers are in an awkward place: by large margins, Americans like the idea of investing in infrastructure.
So the Republicans have engaged in a careful dance over this new measure. Biden wants to demonstrate to the country both that democracy can deliver for its people and that the two parties in Congress do not have to be adversarial. He wanted bipartisan support for this infrastructure plan.
A group of Democrats and Republicans negotiated the measure that is now being prepared to move forward. Last week, five Republican negotiators backed the outline for the measure. They, of course, would like to be able to tell their constituents that they voted for what is a very popular measure, rather than try to claim credit for it after voting no, as they did with the American Rescue Plan.
Negotiators were always clear that the Democrats would plan to pass a much larger bill under what is known as a “budget reconciliation” bill in addition to the infrastructure plan. Financial measures under reconciliation cannot be killed by filibuster in the Senate, meaning that if the Democrats can stand together, they can pass whatever they wish financially under reconciliation. Democrats planned to put into a second bill the infrastructure measures Republicans disliked: funding to combat climate change, for example, and to promote clean energy, and to invest in human infrastructure: childcare and paid leave, free pre-kindergarten and community college, and tax cuts for working families with children.
Crucially, that bigger measure, known as the American Families Plan, will also start to dismantle the 2017 Republican tax cuts, which cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%. Biden wants to return the corporate tax rate to 28%, still lower than it was before 2017, but higher than it is now.
To keep more progressive Democrats on board with the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Democrats need to move it forward in tandem with the larger, more comprehensive American Families Plan. This has been clear from the start. After announcing the bipartisan deal, Biden reiterated that he would not sign one without the other.
And yet, although he himself acknowledged the Democratic tandem plan on June 15, McConnell pretended outrage over the linkage of the two bills. McConnell and some of his colleagues complained to reporters that Biden was threatening to veto the bipartisan bill unless Congress passed the American Families Plan too.
It appears McConnell had hoped that the bipartisan plan would peel centrist Democrats off from the larger American Families Plan, thus stopping the Democrats’ resurrection of the larger idea of the liberal consensus and keeping corporate taxes low. Killing that larger plan might well keep progressive Democrats from voting for the bipartisan bill, too, thus destroying both of Biden’s key measures. If he can drive a wedge through the Democrats, he can make sure that none of their legislation passes.
Over the weekend, Biden issued a statement saying that he was not threatening to veto a bill he had just worked for weeks to put together, but was supporting the bipartisan bill while also intending to pass the American Families Plan.
McConnell then issued a statement essentially claiming victory and demanding control over the Democrats’ handling of the measures, saying “The President has appropriately delinked a potential bipartisan infrastructure bill from the massive, unrelated tax-and-spend plans that Democrats want to pursue on a partisan basis.” He went on to demand that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) agree to send the smaller, bipartisan bill forward without linking it to “trillions of dollars for unrelated tax hikes, wasteful spending, and Green New Deal socialism.”
McConnell is trying to turn the tide against these measures by calling the process unfair, which might give Republicans an excuse to vote no even on a bill as popular as the bipartisan bill is. Complaining about process is, of course, how he prevented the Senate from convicting former president Trump of inciting the January 6 insurrection, and how he stopped the establishment of a bipartisan, independent committee to investigate that insurrection.
But McConnell no longer controls Congress. House Speaker Pelosi says she will not schedule the bipartisan bill until the American Families Plan passes.
Pelosi also announced today that the House is preparing legislation to establish a select committee to investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol. She had to do so, she noted, because “Senate Republicans did Mitch McConnell a ‘personal favor’ rather than their patriotic duty and voted against the bipartisan commission negotiated by Democrats and Republicans. But Democrats are determined to find the truth.”
The draft of the bill provides for the committee to have 13 members. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), himself likely to be called as a witness before the committee, will be able to “consult” with the Speaker on five of the members, but the final makeup of the committee will be up to the Speaker. This language echoes that of the select committee that investigated the Benghazi attack, and should prevent McCarthy from sabotaging the committee with far-right lawmakers eager to disrupt the proceedings rather than learn what happened. Instead, we can expect to see on the committee Republicans who voted to establish the independent, bipartisan commission that McConnell and Republican senators killed.
Biden’s op-ed made it clear that he intends to rebuild the country: “I have always believed that there is nothing our nation can’t do when we decide to do it together,” he wrote. “Last week, we began to write a new chapter in that story.”