It might have been a small procedural vote in the Senate but nevertheless quite important and significant for the Biden White House that needed to move forward on the American Jobs Plan or an infrastructure package that is pegged as a centrepiece of the President’s legislative agenda.
When the cloture vote was taken to see if Democrats had 60 Senators to move forward on discussion and a formal vote on the bill, 17 members of the Grand Old Party, including the Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, joined Democrats, a rare number, given the bickering and open animosity between the parties.
The White House did not uncork champagne bottles, but President Joseph Biden’s thinking was quite clear that the mood was indeed upbeat. The accord struck between Democrats and Republicans was described by the President as the indication that America can do big things.
“This deal signals to the world that our democracy can function. We will once again transform America and propel us into the future”, he said in a statement prior to the vote. For weeks at least, four Republicans worked tirelessly with Democrats to come to an understanding on an infrastructure and jobs plan that started off in March with an outlay of more than US$ 2 Trillion in March but ended on the Senate floor on a US$ 1.3 Trillion package over a period of five years.
Neither Democrats nor the Republicans who joined in the cloture vote are under any illusions for all of them understand the complexity of the task ahead especially as the Senate gets into a recess starting August 9. Whether the chamber stays behind to burn the midnight oil remains to be seen but at this time there is no certainty that the 17 members of the GOP who crossed over will remain with the Democrats till the end. The expectation is that the Senate will consider the bill in multiple sections with 60 votes needed at each stage prior to final clearance. The process of legislation is that for a bill to become law the Senate and the House versions will have to be reconciled to a single language.
Complicating matters for the Biden White House are not just the hardline Republicans; it comes from their own pack in the House of Representatives and the Senate and some of this has to do with a second and separate plan that President Biden is advancing—a US$ 3.5 Trillion package that would invest in child care, education and climate change. The Democratic leadership in the Senate has said that it would want both plans to be taken up simultaneously; and not all Democrats are on board in the Senate with progressives riled that efforts are underway to mollify the centrists of the party. And not all those within GOP who sided with their Democratic colleagues are for this second massive spending plan that is seen as altering the present corporate tax structure.
Democrats in the House of Representatives seem to have a plan of their own. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that she would want the Senate to pass both the legislative packages before she would even table a House version for discussion and vote. Further, House Democrats have crafted their own transportation bill that addresses rail transit and ways to come to terms with climate change. In fact, in a private meeting, the Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is said to have referred to the Senate bipartisan measure as complete “crap”.
The small relief to the White House is that, unlike the Infrastructure proposal, the US$ 3.5 Trillion package is considered under budget rules of the Senate that does not require the threshold of 60 votes but only a simple majority that Vice-President Kamala Harris provides as the tie-breaking vote. But all this is contingent on the Democrats staying together as 50 members.
In the infrastructure bill what Democrats are hoping for is for their colleagues on the other side of the aisle to see the advantages of massive government spending in potentially every state boosting job opportunities and lifting the economy. In this agenda, some US$ 550 billion is set apart for new spending in public works projects. The package has set apart billions for highways, broadband internet, modernizing the electric grid, upgradation of airports, waterworks, electric vehicle stations and bolstering mechanisms against cyber attacks.
In all this, President Biden and Democratic leadership should also be watching for the wrecking ball coming by way of the former President Donald Trump and his associates in the House and Senate. Trump has been openly campaigning against the infrastructure bill by warning and using invectives of the GOPers who are working with Democrats.
In view of the 45th President voting with Democrats on infrastructure will be handing President Biden a victory that should be denied; and that Republicans can put together a much better package once they take back the legislative houses in November 2022. “Don’t do it Republicans — Patriots will never forget. If this deal happens, lots of primaries will be coming your way”, Trump warned. But the former President seems to forget two things: that for all the self-styled popularity of his, he was not able to put together an Infrastructure plan in spite of talking about it repeatedly for four years; and more importantly, in the game of politics and elections not many Republicans would like to see political pork going away from their districts!
A former senior journalist in Washington, DC, covering North America and the United Nations, the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.
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