An Infrastructure Deal Isn’t Dead—Yet

Republicans cynically crushed the January 6 commission. But bridges and roads aren’t thugs and nationalists. Here’s what it would take to get both sides to reach an agreement.

Senator Joe Manchin’s “political worldview was put to the test (and it lost),” wrote Steve Benen at MSNBC’s MaddowBlog. Benen wrote this following the Republican filibuster of legislation creating a commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection, despite Manchin’s public appeals to his Republican colleagues to create the panel. Benen, a proud Washington Monthly alumnus, was summing up the reaction of many progressives frustrated by Manchin’s refusal to abolish the filibuster and plead to the West Virginian to change his mind. Benen extrapolated, “The only responsible way forward is for Manchin to consider the implication of today’s lesson. If 10 Senate Republicans won’t accept a bipartisan plan for a Jan. 6 commission … why in the world would anyone think GOP officials would work in good faith toward a sensible agreement on infrastructure?”

The problem with that logic is investigating the insurrection and investing in infrastructure are two very different things. Investigating the insurrection means detailing the ties between the Republican Party and anti-government white supremacists. Investing in infrastructure means roads and bridges and broadband in Republican districts.

More simply put: Investigating 1/6 makes Trump mad. Investing in infrastructure does not make Trump mad.

If you still think the demise of the bipartisan 1/6 commission also means the demise of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the negotiators—at least in their public statements—disagree.

Last Thursday—which was the day before the 1/6 filibuster, but everyone already knew what was going to happen—Senate Republicans bumped up their infrastructure offer. They did so in response to President Joe Biden trimming his. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki formally responded, “It is encouraging to see [the Republican] group come forward with a substantially increased the [sic] funding level.” And Senator Joe Manchin called the Republican counteroffer a “wonderful step in the right direction.”

Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stepped out of his usual obstructionist character. Asked on CNBC if Republicans have made their final offer, he said, “No, we’re going to keep talking … we’re open to spending some more.” And on Fox News Sunday, lead Senate Republican negotiator Shelley Moore Capito was downright effusive about Biden’s approach to the talks, saying, “His heart is in this.” Manchin’s fellow West Virginia senator also offered, “I think there is a hunger for bipartisanship. The president stood on the Capitol steps and said he’s the president of everybody—represents Republicans and Democrats. He has expressed to me and to our group numerous times his desire to work with us and to negotiate a package. And I think that’s what you see and, in fact, we are inching towards one another.” (Capito and Biden are scheduled to meet again on Wednesday.)

This cautious optimism persists even though the competing offers are not terribly close, and many Democrats, including the president, are signaling that their patience is limited. (Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the time for the Republicans “to fish or cut bait” was fast approaching.) Why is there any happy infrastructure talk at all amidst the fractiousness around investigating 1/6? Because no one wants to be blamed for killing a potential infrastructure deal. At minimum, political value still exists in the appearance of bipartisanship.

The remaining unknown: Is the desire to avoid blame shared enough on both sides to actually produce tangible bipartisanship? “Yes” can’t be discounted.

If you look at each offer, you would be inclined to believe the gulf is too wide to bridge. Biden proposed $1.7 trillion in infrastructure. The Republicans offered $928 billion in infrastructure, more narrowly defined to include just transportation, broadband, and water. Critically, only $257 billion of the Republican offer is “new” spending above what was already being spent annually in those areas.

Several progressive Democrats scoffed at it as miserly. “Miniscule,” said Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz. “Nowhere near far enough,” dismissed Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin declared, “It’s getting close to pulling the plug time.”

But the Psaki statement did not call attention to the new money number. In fact, what she said was so “encouraging” was that the Republican topline number was “nearing $1 trillion.”

On Sunday, Buttigieg appeared on ABC’s This WeekCNN’s State of the Union, and Fox News Sunday where he was pressed on the sticking points. While he acknowledged the differences, Buttigieg didn’t demean the Republican offer nor commit Biden to only counting new spending in the topline number. On ABC, he said of Republicans, “They seem to be embracing the idea that about a trillion is appropriate.” When pressed, he gingerly noted that the “the devil is often in the details” and “we need to make investments over and above what would have happened anyway.” But those statements stopped short of insisting that only new spending should be counted.

CNN’s Jake Tapper asked if the discrepancies around new spending meant that Republicans are “negotiating in bad faith.” Buttigieg replied, “No. That’s the thing. I mean, we have been very above board. When we’re in these conversations, the charts are out. The numbers are there. And, obviously, there are a lot of different ways to talk about the same thing. The fact that they philosophically seem to agree that trillion-dollar investments are the kind of thing we need to be doing right now, that’s encouraging. But we aren’t exactly aligned.”

We have other evidence that Biden and his aides are not being sticklers about how to count spending. You might have missed it, but last week the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved a five-year bipartisan highway, roads, and bridges spending bill.  The previous day, Psaki not only praised the bill, but also counted it as part of Biden’s broader infrastructure agenda, saying, “That’s a $303 billion infrastructure bill. That is a great down payment. It’s very much aligned with the president’s proposal and initiative.” But that bill does not provide $303 billion in new spending. The committee notes the amount constitutes an “increase of more than 34 percent”in spending for highways, roads and bridges from the last five-year transportation bill—in other words, only about $78 billion in new money. The Biden White House isn’t nitpicking

One other notable line in the Psaki response to the Capito offer is: “We are also continuing to explore other proposals that we hope will emerge.” This may refer to a possible bipartisan proposal Manchin is trying to put together with Republican Senators Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, and Rob Portman. The White House surely would like to stoke a little competition between the two West Virginia senators in the hopes of getting their respective groups to up their antes and further narrow the divides. And Manchin isn’t likely to declare bipartisanship dead before he has another chance to be in the center of the negotiating action.

Of course, none of the above guarantees Biden will sign a bipartisan law. The president is willing to pass another reconciliation with only Democratic votes. He did it once already. On CNN, Buttigieg put pressure on negotiators when he said: “By the time that [members of Congress] return [from recess], which is June 7 … we need a clear direction.” (Though in April, Buttigieg said, “The President wants to see major action in Congress and real progress by Memorial Day,” so these soft deadlines can be creatively adjusted.)

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “It has always been our plan regardless of the vehicle to work on an infrastructure bill in July,” which basically means: If there isn’t a bipartisan bill to bring to the floor in July, then we will bring a partisan reconciliation bill to the floor then.

Those subtle threats are probably aimed primarily at Manchin. Biden and Schumer don’t want a repeat of the 2009 negotiations over the Affordable Care Act, which were bogged down for months while Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus futilely tried to cajole his Republican counterpart, Chuck Grassley.

But Manchin doesn’t have to do what Biden or Schumer, or Sanders or Durbin, want. If the loud-and-proud bipartisan centrist wants more talking with Republicans, he will keep talking with them.

Trying to read Manchin’s mind can drive a political analyst mad, but I doubt that telling Manchin he’s naïve just because one of his attempts at bipartisanship fell through will prompt him to reverse his course. Bipartisan-minded politicians aren’t as quick to draw the same connections as partisans or even everyday pols. To them, it’s always a new day. Leave failures in the past.

At the risk of playing psychic, I think it is safe to assert that what Manchin fundamentally wants is the power to shape legislation. If Republicans assist with giving him that power, he will continue to pursue bipartisanship. If Republicans are too stingy and obstructionist, Manchin will turn back to his fellow Democrats and wield power in the reconciliation process. If such a point of exasperation is ever to be reached, it will be decided by Manchin and Manchin alone. As one anonymous source in Manchin’s orbit recently told The Daily Beast, “Joe Manchin doesn’t give a fuck about progressive backlash or caucus politics.” Us pundits won’t be able to take any one failure and use it to browbeat him into submission.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"