A defining political clash took shape Sunday over Joe Biden’s latest effort to reshape the US economy, with Republicans mobilizing against a massive infrastructure plan that could put the President in historic Democratic company.
GOP office holders launched a broad assault on the package, arguing it was too expensive and was stuffed with overly partisan programs that had nothing to do with fixing roads and bridges.
“The Biden administration is calling it an infrastructure plan. It looks like a $2 trillion tax hike to me,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”
Democrats, meanwhile, hinted they would try to press ahead with the plan without Republican votes if necessary through a 50-50 Senate, immediately putting the focus on divisions over details that exist in their own ranks. They styled the bill as a jobs package that was needed despite strengthening employment figures as the pandemic economy begins to wake up.
“I think it’s a serious proposal dealing with some of the serious crises that we face,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said, also on “State of the Union.”
The measure includes hundreds of billions of dollars for transportation projects, but also investments in items not normally seen in a traditional infrastructure plan, including in-home care services for elderly Americans, $300 billion for manufacturing, more than $200 billion for housing and tens of billions of dollars for programs like climate-friendly electric vehicles. So in essence, the fight in Washington is going to boil down to a debate on what exactly the term “infrastructure” entails.
The building Washington confrontation was a sign that both parties recognize the package, part of a flurry of initiatives by Biden to benefit blue collar and middle class Americans, is a moment that will shape his legacy.
The broad scope and price tag of the bill, and a furor over a subsequent measure focusing on education and health care expected later in the year, means Biden faces a tougher assignment than was the case with his newly passed $1.9 trillion Covid relief law.
The infrastructure plan is the latest sign of Biden’s hopes of enacting a reordering of the US economy using government power on a scale that has drawn comparison with Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
It comes at a time when the administration is picking up speed along with the drive to get all Americans a Covid-19 vaccine to stem a rising surge in cases. Over one 24-hour period over the weekend, more than 4 million doses of the vaccine went into arms — a record pace. But Republicans seeking to slow the President’s momentum are looking for his weak points, including on immigration — an issue that polls show is an area of potential vulnerability. They are highlighting the influx of child migrants over the southern border to suggest Biden’s reversal of ex-President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration policies have backfired.
Republicans want an infrastructure plan just about infrastructure
Republicans laid out their case against the bill on Sunday by arguing that Biden’s new plan was about far more than infrastructure.
Reeves said on CNN that because Biden plans to partially finance the plan by raising corporate tax rates to 28%, above the 21% threshold set by the Trump administration in its tax overhaul plan, the infrastructure package would lead to lower growth.
He also highlighted more than $150 billion included in the Biden plan to coax Americans to switch to electric vehicles as part of a broader effort by the administration to fight climate change.
“That is a political statement. It’s not a statement trying to improve our infrastructure in America so it looks more like the Green New Deal than an infrastructure plan,” Reeves said, referring to a progressive Democratic approach to climate change that Republicans hold up as poster child of liberal excess — but that which Biden has not embraced.
Sanders took on GOP arguments that Biden’s bill is more a Trojan horse for left-wing causes than an infrastructure bill, defining infrastructure more broadly than crumbling points of the US transportation grid.
“Roads and bridges and tunnels are infrastructure,” Sanders told Tapper. “But I think many of us see a crisis in human infrastructure. When a working class family can’t find good-quality, affordable child care, that’s human infrastructure.”
Making another emerging Republican case against the bill, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker claimed that Biden’s offers of bipartisanship were insincere because he wanted to undo the achievements of the Trump administration.
“How could the President expect to have bipartisanship when his proposal is a repeal of one of our signature issues in 2017, where we cut the tax rate and made the United States finally more competitive when it comes to the way we treat job creators?” Wicker asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Another powerful GOP senator, Roy Blunt of Missouri, said the Biden White House was making a big mistake and should concentrate on passing a bill alongside Republicans based on a more traditional understanding of infrastructure.
“My advice to the White House has been take that bipartisan win. Do this in a more traditional infrastructure way, and then if you want to force the rest of the package on Republicans in the Congress and the country, you can certainly do that,” Blunt said on Fox News Sunday.
But Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sought to turn the tables on Blunt and his fellow Republicans, painting them as outliers lining up against a bill Democrats hope to make as popular as Biden’s Covid rescue plan.
“What we’re seeing with the American Jobs Plan is overwhelming support among the American people,” Buttigieg said on “Meet the Press” before making a striking claim about the public’s affection for a measure that was only outlined by the President during a visit to Pittsburgh last week.
“And, you know, in many ways, it feels like we’ve already convinced America. Now, we just got to get Washington to follow suit.”
Democrats hint at go-it-alone plan without GOP votes
While Biden says he would like Republican buy-in to the infrastructure package, he has not shown any sign of trimming the scale of his ambitions to attract GOP votes in the Senate.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm did not rule out a bipartisan bill during an appearance on “State of the Union” but offered a broad hint of how the Senate strategizing could eventually play out with a party-line vote.
“As he has said, he was sent to the presidency to do a job for America. And if the vast majority of Americans, Democrats and Republicans, across the country support spending on our country and not allowing us to lose the race globally, then he’s going to do that,” Granholm told Tapper.
To get past Republican filibuster efforts, Democrats appear ready to try to pass the infrastructure package by using a procedural device known as reconciliation, which applies to legislation that affects the state of the federal budget and is the same procedure that was used to pass the Covid relief package without Republican votes.
But such a strategy would still require buy-in from moderate Democrats like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has said he would like to see a bipartisan process play out over the measure. The coal-state Democrat, who knows how much his caucus needs him on board given their narrow Senate majority, didn’t hesitate to invoke his own power as a frequent swing vote when negotiations over details of the relief package came down to the wire.
Sanders, who is the Budget Committee chairman, predicted the Democratic side of the Senate would end up unified. “If your question is, do I think we will come together to do it? Yes, I do,” Sanders told Tapper, also on “State of the Union.”
“I think you are going to see the Democratic caucus coming together to pass very, very significant legislation.”