The Senate’s convincing passage of a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan was vindication of President Biden’s commitment to bipartisanship, but to make it law, he will need Democrats in lock step.
Aug. 10, 2021, 7:46 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON — The Senate’s passage on Tuesday of a trillion-dollar infrastructure package may have been a vote of confidence for President Biden and his insistence that bipartisanship can still thrive, but there is a far harder task ahead for his agenda: keeping Democrats in lock step.
The crosscurrents in the president’s own party have only sharpened since Congress began moving on parallel tracks with two separate legislative efforts. One, a $1 trillion bipartisan measure that the Senate passed Tuesday, would pay for roads, bridges, rail and water systems. The other, a budget blueprint the Senate was expected to pass late Tuesday or early Wednesday, would come together this fall to expand the nation’s social safety net — education, health care, child care and climate change — with Democratic votes only.
It will fall to the president to keep his fractious party in line and both efforts moving forward.
“I would liken it to air traffic control,” Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, said on Tuesday. “We have at least a couple of planes circling the airport in stormy weather, and everyone wants to see their loved ones on the ground. But the important thing is to get everyone down safely. In what order and at what time best assures that, that’s the challenge.”
Mr. Biden, he said, will be “absolutely critical.”
In an evenly divided Senate and a narrowly divided House, the path for Mr. Biden’s agenda is treacherous. It is remarkable that his expansive social and economic proposals — all $4 trillion of them — have gotten this far, and the two chambers’ Democratic leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, have proved adept at holding their caucuses together.
But the party’s left wing is smarting, feeling like infrastructure has been given preferential treatment to its priorities and losing a hard-fought special election in Cleveland to a handpicked representative of the Democratic establishment, Shontel Brown, who beat Nina Turner, a hero of progressives.
Mr. Biden used a speech after the Senate vote not only to trumpet the bipartisan package but to shift focus to the Democrats needed to pass the $3.5 trillion social policy bill, which has to be approved under a budget process called reconciliation to sidestep Republican opposition.
“I think we will get enough Democrats to vote for it,” Mr. Biden said, adding, “and I think that the House will eventually put two bills on my desk, one on infrastructure, and one on reconciliation.”
“For the Republicans who supported this bill, you showed a lot of courage,” Mr. Biden said. “To the Democrats who supported this bill, we can be proud.”
Liberal Democrats never bought into one of the premises of the Biden campaign, that moderation, at least in temperament, could soften reflexive Republican opposition to everything a Democratic president proposes and begin to mend the country’s divisions. Instead they championed his policy agenda, which was unabashedly liberal and expansive.
But Mr. Biden and other more moderate Democrats saw outreach to Republicans, at least on one major bill, as a critical gesture. When Mr. Biden was vice president, Republicans in 2010 capitalized on the sense that the Obama White House and Democrats were using their majorities to ram through pricey legislation at will, and the result was what President Barack Obama called a shellacking in 2010 and a Republican House majority for the remainder of his presidency.
Progressives have been paying the price. The $6 trillion that liberals wanted to expand social safety programs and combat climate change has been cut nearly in half. Promises to devote more than $1 trillion to converting the nation’s energy system to wind, solar and battery power were pared back to around $100 billion in the Senate’s infrastructure bill. An allocation of $20 billion Mr. Biden initially proposed to “reconnect” communities of color was cut to $1 billion.
“I don’t know why moderates won’t compromise the way progressives have,” Representative Ro Khanna, a liberal Democrat from California, said on Tuesday.
The party’s center, meantime, is on a roll, beating the left’s candidates and suggesting it ultimately will not go along with the $3.5 trillion price tag for the social policy bill. Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan, said she might be persuaded to support something truly transformational, like universal child care, that could propel women back into the work force. But she had not seen anything on paper, while the infrastructure bill is, well, concrete.
“The clear signal from my district is, pocket what we can get now and do not hold the infrastructure package hostage,” she said on Tuesday. “Show me the targeted and transformational legislation you’re talking about. Make your case, I’m open, but you can’t expect me as someone who considers herself to be pretty fiscally responsible to sign on to something that’s $3 trillion without even seeing the text.”
Those divisions signal a long slog ahead. The Senate’s 48 Democrats and two independents were expected late Tuesday or early Wednesday to approve a budget blueprint that instructs Senate committees to produce legislation this fall that spends $3.5 trillion to expand Medicare and health insurance subsidies, extend lucrative tax credits for virtually all families with children, fund universal preschool and two years of free community college, and expand elder care and child care — all financed by tax increases on the rich and on corporations.
Under complicated budget rules, that legislation would then be protected from a Republican filibuster and could pass the Senate this fall without one Republican vote — if all 50 senators who caucus with Democratic leadership hold together. A single defection would doom it.
House Democrats have their own problems. House leaders plan to hold a conference call as soon as Wednesday with the entire caucus to appeal for unity and plan a path forward, House Democrats said on Tuesday. The Biden administration has deployed several senior officials to meet with lawmakers, including the progressive, Black and Hispanic caucuses.
“We’ll get it done,” Mr. Biden said.
The House passed its own infrastructure bill, which includes more money for climate change mitigation, and nearly $5.7 billion to pay for 1,473 home district projects, or earmarks, that were vetted by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Representative Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, the committee’s chairman and the bill’s author, wants a seat at the table, not a rubber stamp for the Senate bill — though he indicated on Tuesday that some of his infrastructure demands, especially on climate change, could shift to the social policy bill.
The White House has sent mixed messages. Just after passage on Tuesday, Mr. Biden declared on Twitter: “Big news, folks: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal has officially passed the Senate. I hope Congress will send it to my desk as soon as possible.”
But the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, nearly 100 members strong and backed by Ms. Pelosi, say they will not pass any stand-alone infrastructure bill unless and until the Senate approves the left’s priority, all $3.5 trillion of the social policy bill, which would be the largest expansion of the social safety net since the Great Society of the 1960s.
“We recognize that what just happened in the Senate was tremendous progress, but progressives are trying to make sure we have a bill that meets this moment,” said Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the vote counter of the Progressive Caucus.
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters that Mr. Biden was “going to work in lock step” with Ms. Pelosi.
Liberals fear that if the bill funding roads, bridges and rail is signed into law first, moderate Democrats like Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona will declare victory and peel away from the social policy bill. To progressives, their votes for the infrastructure bill are leverage for their priority.
That could mean the infrastructure bill that passed the Senate will sit on a shelf well into the fall, as Democrats wrangle over the details of the $3.5 trillion social policy measure.
Moderate Democrats, such as Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, have the same leverage in a narrowly divided House. They want a quick vote on the Senate infrastructure plan, and have said $3.5 trillion may be too much money to stomach.
Neil Bradley, an executive vice president and the chief policy officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the Biden administration should move quickly to pass the infrastructure bill.
“You’re going to hold that hostage until you get $3.5 trillion in tax increases and new government?” he asked. “I think that’s a poor argument.”
But the Chamber of Commerce does not care about party unity, or the potential rupture that passage of one measure would cause without the other. Democrats in the middle pleaded on Tuesday for patience.
“This will take some time,” Mr. Malinowski said. “I’d be happy to vote for the infrastructure bill this week, but that would be a mistake.”