There’s something going on in Washington, something terribly strange, something all but inexplicable, and yet nothing to do with aliens.
It looks, at least from a safe distance, that the United States Senate, after much struggle, might actually pass a roughly $1 trillion — a little over half that in new money — bipartisan infrastructure bill. I mean, actual bipartisan, not just a bill with one or two meaningless GOP breakaways, but one in which the Senate gets the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster.
This looks like a huge win for Joe Biden, the last man standing who believes, against all evidence, that bipartisanship still exists in America. It doesn’t, of course, whatever happens with this bill. And yet it is a huge win, even though it’s only a win by the standards of today’s Senate, in which bipartisanship is no more than a mirage. The bigger infrastructure bill, yet to come, will depend on a single-party vote. And to get all 50 Democrats on board for that one, they had to do this one first.
So the question, after Senate Democrats got 18 Republicans to join them Saturday in voting to move the legislation forward, is why Mitch “Just Say No” McConnell would give Biden this victory.
Helping out Democratic presidents is not exactly McConnell’s style. Stealing Supreme Court seats, that’s Mitch’s style. Mumbling about ensuring one-term Democratic presidents, that’s his style, too. I mean, McConnell is already threatening to block the raising of the debt ceiling, a nasty little legislative maneuver that the GOP seemed to forget about during the Trump years and one that is the very essence of gratuitous Washington divisiveness. That’s Mitch’s style.
So, let’s be clear, giving Biden a win is so un-McConnell-like that you know there has to be a catch somewhere, a particularly Machiavellian catch, which would definitely be McConnell’s style.
There are many theories as to what the catch might be, but the one that seems most likely to me is that this may be the only way for Republicans to get a victory out of infrastructure.
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As you know, there are two infrastructure bills. One is the bipartisan bill covering so-called hard infrastructure, like roads and bridges and airports and pipes for drinking water and rural broadband and other long-neglected issues. In that bill, no taxes are raised. The negotiators couldn’t even agree to set aside more money for the IRS to uncover tax cheats because, to Republican politicians, collecting taxes is apparently a far greater sin than cheating on them.
Instead, the negotiators came up with a bunch of pay-for gimmicks, which the Congressional Budget Office says will add more than $256 billion to the deficit over the next decade, while also cutting programs that Democrats favored, which is why a lot of progressives are saying Biden gave away too much to get GOP support. There’s so little here on climate infrastructure, in fact, that some are calling it the Exxon Infrastructure Bill.
You’d think that the CBO grade might change a lot of Republican votes, but that’s only if you believe Republicans worry about deficits on programs they care about. On the other hand, Donald Trump, whose “infrastructure weeks” became a national punchline, threatened to primary any “RINO” — Republican In Name Only — who votes to give “the Radical Left Democrats a big and beautiful win on Infrastructure.” The defiance of Trump is certainly meaningful.
The other infrastructure bill is the much larger, entirely partisan bill covering so-called human infrastructure — a bill that now calls for $3.5 trillion in new spending — that will get no Republican votes because, as Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet told me the other day, most Republicans in Congress “can’t conceive of doing anything that would reverse any part of Trump’s huge tax cuts, which mostly benefit the wealthy.”
The Democrats would have to use reconciliation — meaning they could pass it with only Democratic votes, meaning they’d need Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to go along — to get the bill passed on a 50-50 vote with Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaker. There’s a lot that’s popular in this bill, too — an extension of the expanded child tax credit, universal pre-K, paid family and medical leave, a great deal of climate-change-based infrastructure and more — but it would be paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy. Nancy Pelosi has already said the House won’t pass the bipartisan bill without the other. And it seems like McConnell could have killed the second bill just by killing the first.
Instead, it looks as if he’s making the gamble that he can claim credit for passing infrastructure while blaming Democrats for raising taxes. It’s a two-fer if he can get away with it. When Democrats say no one making less than $400,000 a year will pay more taxes, that won’t stop Republicans from implying that everyone will pay more taxes.
How well the Democrats counter that argument may tell us everything about what happens in the 2022 midterms. I think they’ll start with mentioning that Amazon pays no taxes and go from there.
I was talking to Bennet because he’s a key player in the broadband section of the bipartisan bill that is based, in large part, on Bennet’s earlier bill, which, as he likes to point out, is a bill based largely on the progress rural Colorado has made on broadband.
This bill, Bennet says, would be the largest investment ever made in broadband, with as much as $65 billion in spending. It would ensure, for starters, that any network using these funds would have to provide actual high-speed internet, which hasn’t been the case before. Just as important, the service must be affordable, and that’s before the $14 billion in available subsidies for those who still wouldn’t be able to meet the cost. You won’t be surprised to hear how hard the big internet providers fought against affordability.
It has always been amazing to me how Republicans, the party of rural America, haven’t pushed harder for these broadband buildups over the years. Bennet says that’s a split between national Republicans and state Republicans who represent underserved areas.
“We listened to the people in our state, to people like the Delta Montrose Electric Association,” Bennet said. “When they say broadband, they mean world-class broadband, allowing rural and underserved areas to compete on an equal basis.
“There’s been a generation of Republican politicians who have run on the ideology of dismantling the federal government … and not delivering for their constituents.”
Bennet is so certain of this that he sent a memo to a prominent official in the Biden administration outlining how so many parts of the infrastructure bills would not only well serve rural America, but would also be smart politically for Democrats, who need to gain more traction in rural America.
“I think this is an opportunity for Joe Biden as president, not just as a Democratic president, to pass tax policies that will benefit rural America and pass infrastructure policies that will benefit rural America.” Bennet said. “I look forward to running on both of these in whatever part of the state I’m in.”
That’s Bennet’s bet. And Biden’s bet. And Pelosi’s bet. But strangely, and this is what must be puzzling Democrats, it must somehow also be Mitch McConnell’s bet.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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