There is nothing more that the Biden White House could have wanted prior to Congress going on its August recess than having the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, along with another massive “human” infrastructure initiative, out of the way. But all is not lost. The Senate is expected to take up a final vote on the first $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Bill in a special sitting on Sunday (Monday morning Indian time); and when this is out of the way the Chamber will take up President Joseph Biden’s $3.5 trillion plan intended to boost subsidies for childcare, tuition free community colleges, extra Medicare benefits and looking at ways to address illegal immigration. The Democrats are fast-tracking this through a reconciliation process that requires only a simple majority. And Vice President Kamala Harris is standing by to cast the tie-breaking vote.
The 2,700-odd page Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was not at all easy to deliver; and eventually some 18 Republicans crossed the aisle to join their Democratic colleagues to break the procedural manoeuvres at every step of the voting process. And before the final vote is taken on the bill some members of the Grand Old Party are insisting on a rule that allows some 30 hours of final debate before a vote. Some Democratic and Republican lawmakers are worried that if this were allowed attempts could be made to further delay a final passage, including the possibilities of sneaking in amendments. The Senate is already in over time having sat through two “extra” Saturdays; and their monthlong recess starts August 9.
The conservatives’ attempt to slow pedal the process has also to do with the “human” infrastructure aspect of the president’s plan that they do not wish to give up to the Democrats easily. Whatever the reservations on both Bills, members in the Grand Old Party are also quite aware of the fact that with elections around the corner in 2022, massive spending bills are good for their constituencies and that it would be unwise politics to self-destruct in an election season. More than anything, this is what holds the Democrats who have to stay together if the $3.5 trillion package is to see light of day. Moreover, if the Democratic leadership has taken the path of reconciliation to get this through it is because of a certainty that no Republican will cross over and vote for a measure that would be at the expense of higher tax rates for corporations and wealthy individuals. The Jobs Infrastructure package comes predominantly from repurposing funds including from allocations for COVID and other spending cuts.
Some in the GOP are quite vocal in their opposition to Biden’s infrastructure and jobs spending bill and the reason why negotiations have been protracted over a period of five weeks or so. The bone of contention has been the estimation of the Congressional Budget Office that the $1.2 trillion spending would increase the federal deficit by $256 billion over ten years. “It is clear the ‘pay-fors’ in this package are either phoney or insufficient, and this bill is full of K Street carve-outs, kickbacks and pork,” remarked Senator Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, in a reference to the various lobbying firms in Washington’s K Street. “Republicans must not support the swamp’s bloated debt bomb parading as an infrastructure deal,” he maintained. But Republican and Democratic negotiators have stressed that the official cost did not take into account the increased economic efficiency and productivity that the spending would bring about.
Strangely Biden’s bigger problem this time seems to come from the House of Representatives where Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi has stubbornly said that she will not table any version of the Infrastructure Jobs plan bill unless the Senate cleared both infrastructure plans, thereby putting Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in a spot. “I won’t put it on the floor until we have the rest of the initiative,” Pelosi told ABC News. As it is the House members have already left on their recess without even finishing their agenda like extending the moratorium on eviction; but they can be recalled at a day’s notice through an emergency provision. The problem in the House is not just the Republicans who are keen on scuttling the president’s agenda; it is the Democrats too who are widely split on where and how much the money should go.
Holding on to the Democrats in House is a bigger challenge as their numbers have shrunk in the aftermath of the 2020 November elections. And then there is no guarantee that the House will mechanically sign off on the Senate version, meaning that the two chambers will have to reconcile the differences and put it to a vote again before reaching the desk of the president for his signature. What really riles the extremists and supporters of the former president Donald Trump is not that American counties and states stand to benefit from extra funding coming their way, but the thought of Biden getting back-to-back legislative victories that could only shore up his popularity ahead of the November 2022 elections. After all their single point agenda from Day 1 was to stop Biden in his tracks!
(A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and 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.)