Joe Biden
President Joe Biden delivers a speech on infrastructure spending at Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center, Wednesday, March 31, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Credit: AP

The left hasn’t been shy about critiquing Barack Obama—his appointments from Larry Summers and Tim Geithner to his unwillingness to prosecute George W. Bush-era officials over torture. They’ve saved their heaviest salvos for the way he dealt with Congress, an approach they believe was plagued by premature compromise, producing insufficient policies, a dissatisfied electorate, and a breeding ground for Trumpism. Two years ago, socialist writer Bhaskar Sunkara articulated the commonly held view that Obama botched health care reform by entering into negotiations with health insurers “with an already compromised position.” He added, “Bernie [Sanders] says ‘Medicare for All’ and he means it, but even if you only wanted a public option, wouldn’t that be a better position to start from anyway?”

Joe Biden appears to have taken this critique to heart. His first two legislative pushes spending proposals dwarf Obama’s and are comparable only to World War II spending. And size isn’t the only difference between 44 and 46: Biden has left out any potential sweeteners for Republicans such as business-oriented tax cuts, which Obama included in both his successful stimulus program and failed subsequent infrastructure push. Once-skeptical progressives have been thrilled to see Biden “go big.” On the day Biden announced his infrastructure package, environmental writer David Roberts posted on Twitter, “I’m eating all the negative words I said about Biden and, friends, I’m enjoying every bite.”

Biden’s go-big strategy was validated with the American Rescue Plan. Polling was strong. Democrats were united. The bill passed through the budget reconciliation process with minimal trimming and without the hassle of bipartisan negotiations.

But will going big work out so well every time? Infrastructure poses a more complicated test.

Already we have learned that when you go big, others can still go bigger. Biden called his $2.3 trillion, 8-year infrastructure American Jobs Plan package “big” and “bold,” but that hasn’t stopped the Congressional Progressive Caucus from crafting its own $10 trillion, 10-year plan. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez promoted the bigger plan on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” while sharing “serious concerns” that Biden’s proposal is “not enough to realize the very inspiring vision that Biden has advanced.”

Quintupling may serve to make $2.3 trillion look moderate and ease final passage. But if ambitious progressives threaten to withhold their votes unless Biden’s number goes up, while moderates fight to keep the number down, that would strain the Democrats’ ability to pass a bill on a party-line vote through budget reconciliation.

Another factor in the infrastructure fight, which was not present in the pandemic bill, is taxes. Some moderate Democrats, who feel the American Rescue Plan pushed the limit on deficit spending, argue that any additional spending should be offset with new tax revenue. Many progressives, meanwhile, believe the moderates’ love of budget-balancing needlessly holds Biden back from going as big as possible.

Biden’s plan does include tax increases on corporations. But Senator Joe Manchin has said the proposal’s corporate income tax increase from 21 to 28 percent is too high. proposing 25 percent instead. And further complicating matters is an ultimatum delivered by three New York and New Jersey-area House Democrats insisting the bill lifts the cap on deducting state and local tax payments on federal returns—a feature of the Trump tax reform that disproportionately impacts big blue states with relatively high tax levels and costs of living. As it stands, the loss of four House Democrats would leave Speaker Nancy Pelosi short of what she would need to pass the infrastructure bill on even a party-line vote.

If the game is to secure 50 Democratic Senate votes and pass infrastructure through reconciliation, then Democrats need to appease nearly everyone in their caucus, despite these initial fissures. But what if, this time, Democrats need 60?

While no one can be precisely sure how the Senate parliamentarian will interpret the reconciliation rules, several budget analysts have cautioned the rules may forbid significant portions of the Democrats’ infrastructure plans from being immune to a filibuster. (For a very wonky rundown of how reconciliation impacts infrastructure, read this primer from Jeff Davis at the Eno Center for Transportation.)

As a general matter, reconciliation provisions must be budgetary items—tax and spending changes, not new policies and with indirect budgetary effects. As Politico’s Sam Mintz reported, that means Democrats may not have limitless power to create new infrastructure programs in reconciliation. (Even though the Senate parliamentarian ruled on Monday that Democrats can pass reconciliation bills more frequently than previous Congresses have assumed, the constraints on the process will likely prevent Democrats from using it for some of their prized agenda items, including voting rights, labor rights, immigration reform and minimum wage.) Democrats could try to create new transportation programs in a separate surface transportation bill—which must pass by the end of September or else highway funding will expire. But that would require Republican votes.

Projects with long time horizons could run afoul of the 10-year limit for reconciliation. According to Davis, that could ensnare any plans for high-speed rail.

Another potential hiccup is earmarks—spending designated by members of Congress for specific projects in their constituencies. Earmarks, which often get disingenuously maligned as “pork,” have been banned in recent years. This year House Democrats formally resurrected earmarks, hoping to lubricate the legislative process. But earmarks can’t easily grease an infrastructure bill if they are banned from reconciliation.

“Specific projects that target specific companies and areas have been ruled as violations of the Byrd Rule in the past,” said Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s Marc Goldwein to Bloomberg. Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi tried to get some transportation earmarks in the American Rescue Plan but were blocked by the Senate parliamentarian. So, if backbencher Democrats really want their pet earmarks to impress their voters, they may need to forgo reconciliation.

Some Democrats think they can pass less controversial infrastructure provisions through regular order with Republican help, then save their more ambitious items for reconciliation. But the Washington Post reported last month that “Republicans warned that they would probably not go along for that ride.”

Which brings us to another potential downside of the “go big” strategy. A big plan can offer the opposition a tempting target. Republicans have not been cowed by Biden’s positive job approval ratings and topline support for infrastructure spending in polls. Instead, they are trying to turn the infrastructure proposal into culture war fodder by painting it as a left-wing wish list beyond traditional infrastructure.

Of course, such punches may not land but “going big” may alienate the opposition, divide your party, and end up with little to nothing. Obama didn’t pass his $447 billion American Jobs Act. George W. Bush flopped trying to partially privatize Social Security. Bill Clinton swung for the fences on health care reform and struck out. Jimmy Carter, despite his moral exhortations, had to settle for a stripped-down energy bill.

Going big can work, but it can’t easily bridge ideological divides, paper over disputes in the details, or protect controversial ideas from vicious attack. Perhaps that’s why on Friday, in White House remarks on his infrastructure plan, Biden subtly tried to reduce expectations he could replicate his stellar pandemic relief performance. He acknowledged, “compromise is inevitable, changes in my plan are certain, but inaction is not an option.” In other words, the $2.3 trillion price is negotiable.

At least one Republican has expressed a willingness to bargain. Senator Roy Blunt, on Fox News Sunday, said, “it would be an easy victory if we go back and look at roads and bridges and ports and airports and maybe even underground water systems and broadband,” totaling about $615 billion. That would likely mean stripping out Biden’s proposed investments in areas such as job training, long-term care, housing, school buildings, and research and development.

The last time some Republicans made a counter-offer of about $600 billion, Biden concluded the bid was too low to be taken seriously. Even if Biden takes this trial balloon seriously, expectations on the left may now be too high—after having gone so big in the initial proposal—for Biden to make significant concessions and keep his Democratic caucus sufficiently united.

Yet Biden will likely have to engage in more robust negotiation to pass his American Jobs Plan than his American Rescue Plan. Last month’s relief bill was legislated lightning fast in a crisis. So little attention was paid to the details that a transformational expansion of the child tax credit was tucked in with few noticing, although my colleague Anne Kim was among the first to flag it. There was barely time to pare the bill. With its many components and demands from provincial interests, infrastructure will move on a slower track, providing more time for scrutiny and brinksmanship. Going big doesn’t offer protection from such legislative threats but obstacles.

Of course, obstacles can be overcome. But for Biden to sign anything resembling the size and scope of what he has proposed, he will have to summon all of the political wisdom he has accumulated over the years. He will either have to maintain such a level of popularity for his ideas that 10 Senate Republicans suddenly discover cooperation or he and the Democratic congressional leadership will need to hold together the left, the middle … and the parliamentarian.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.