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After four years of jokes that weren’t funny, it may finally be Infrastructure Week in America as Democrats race to move two major pieces of legislation: a $579 billion bipartisan plan to repair the nation’s ailing roads, bridges and energy infrastructure, and a sweeping $3.5 trillion budget plan that Senate Democrats plan to pass on a party-line vote.
But while Joe Biden and Senate Democrats have focused on solidifying GOP support for the smaller, bipartisan bill, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is vowing to torpedo Biden’s big package if progressive spending priorities are left out. In a fundraising email to supporters Monday night, AOC wrote that “the idea that we would be limited by a bipartisan deal is laughable,” and repeated her vow that she and progressive colleagues in the House would withhold their votes on the infrastructure bill “unless a budget bill that includes climate measures, child care, and immigration reform passes at the same time.”
That puts Biden back in the corner he’s been in ever since the bipartisan deal was first announced, and then almost derailed when Biden immediately said, “If this is the only one that comes to me, I’m not signing it. It’s in tandem” with his bigger package that would have to pass using reconciliation and without Republican support.
Now, AOC is holding him to his word even as Senate Democrats without a single vote to spare face the challenging task of crafting a big budget bill that satisfies every one of its members from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin without losing already shaky GOP support in the process. Biden and Chuck Schumer can start by treating the party’s left wing like a serious negotiating partner instead of a rubber stamp.
There’s some evidence the president is belatedly understanding the important role progressives will play in getting his infrastructure deals through Congress. In addition to his declaration after the bipartisan deal was announced, Biden invited Sanders to the White House last week to discuss adjustments to the Democrats’ legislation.
But in partisan Washington, one step forward often means another back. Over the weekend, GOP Senator Rob Portman of Ohio announced his party would not support beefing up IRS enforcement power to help pay for Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure package. That left the president scrambling to find other ways to immediately pay for key spending measures, as Republicans are insisting on.
“[Biden] knows and I know that we’re seeing an economy where the very, very rich are getting richer while working families are struggling,” Sanders told reporters outside the White House after two contentious hours in the Oval Office. That’s not a dynamic the very rich are eager to change, and it’s even harder when the GOP is against not only raising taxes on the rich but even giving the IRS the power it needs to ensure that the rich actually pay what they already owe.”
Meantime, both the infrastructure bill and the spending bill are teetering on the brink of collapse. On Monday, JPMorgan’s morning Market Note predicted that either the $579 billion bipartisan bill or the party-line reconciliation bill would pass—but not both. Their analysts warned that “There is also a nonzero chance that no legislation passes.”
JPMorgan is pessimistic because unlike the bipartisan infrastructure deal, Democrats’ party-line reconciliation bill will likely include “social infrastructure” spending for education, public health, senior services and programs used by low-income Americans. All of these will need to be paid for through more tax revenue. Those revenue-raisers are must-haves for progressives and never-gonna-happens for the Republicans, and bad blood around revenue could end up killing one or both deals.
And failing to pass both bills would mean chaos within the Democratic party, as Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have both made their support for the bipartisan infrastructure package contingent on passage of a reconciliation bill that sufficiently invests in the underpaid nurses, home-care workers, physical therapists and others who offer essential care to the elderly and disabled.
Biden had a robust $600 billion investment in care workers in his original infrastructure proposal, after all. But that proposal collapsed after Republicans demanded the bipartisan bill only focus on traditional infrastructure areas like roads, bridges and ports. Biden largely backed down from his broader spending proposals in June, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is already demanding a deeper round of cuts in exchange for his blessing. Selling Democratic budget hawks like Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and Manchin on additional spending won’t be much easier.
Bringing Republicans out of their natural obstructionism and into a real legislative coalition is an impressive feat of Biden-style negotiating. But it’s worthless to bring Republicans aboard if that comes with the loss of progressive Democrats. If Biden can’t build serious bridges to progressives already suspicious about his lack of urgency on issues ranging from protecting ballot access to immigration reform, he’s not going to get the money to build literal bridges.
Progressives have already proven their willingness to provoke a public fight with Democratic leadership. Back in May, members of “the Squad” including Reps. Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Cori Bush nearly killed Democrats’ highly publicized Capitol security bill after the party tossed aside their concerns about strengthening police accountability. Snubbing the left on social infrastructure will almost certainly provoke an all-out campaign to humiliate Biden in the House.
Progressives are set to be a headache for the remainder of Biden’s presidency—especially if the fragile coalition of progressives and moderates which elected Biden in 2020 collapses after less than a year. And progressive leaders reject the idea they are jeopardizing party unity by refusing to rubber-stamp Biden priorities while their own policy proposals are overlooked and abandoned in the rush to compromise with conservatives.
On Wednesday, Schumer will take a major step forward by calling a vote to begin debate on the smaller, bipartisan deal. But the GOP is already warning that they can’t guarantee support for the deal despite the laundry list of compromises Biden and Senate Democrats included in the package. If the bill survives, final action could come only hours before Congress recesses for its summer break.
Time is running short for Democratic leaders to get infrastructure talks back on track. Any attempt to move talks forward without addressing the clear concerns of progressives like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders risks scuttling the entire deal. Schumer and Biden are already fighting a unified right-wing messaging machine determined to paint any infrastructure spending as a march to communism.
Alienating the left would destroy Biden’s last hope at proving compromise can work in our Trumpified times.