As Congress moves closer to passing a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, GOP senators appear more than willing to ignore Donald Trump’s pleas to block the bill. House Republicans, however, are listening dutifully.
Over the weekend, 18 GOP senators—more than a third of the conference—voted to advance legislation to fund roads, transit systems, broadband, and more, which they negotiated with President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats.
A fuming Trump, who’d criticized the bill previously, responded to the defections by blasting out a series of lengthy statements slamming the bill as a RINO-backed “disgrace,” insulting the intelligence of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and threatening to withhold endorsements for any lawmaker who voted for the package.
“Hopefully,” Trump said, “the House will be much stronger than the Senate.”
If Trump’s freeform post-presidency musings have tended to land like insignificant shouts into the void, that message seemingly did not. Since the Senate moved forward with the bill last week, House Republicans have increasingly leapt to the MAGA line on the package: that it’s a boondoggle that will pave the way to socialism.
Vociferous Trump backer Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), for example, tweeted before a key Senate vote on Sunday that his district is “sick and tired of these trillion-dollar socialist monstrosities.”
On Monday, Rep. Jason Smith (R-MO) said on Fox News that “the bipartisan infrastructure package is effectively a gateway drug,” implying that GOP support will hasten the passage of a far larger $3.5 trillion economic package that Democrats intend to pass along partisan lines.
And in a tweet, Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) used scare-quotes when mentioning the “infrastructure” bill and called it a “trojan horse for another $3.5 trillion of toxic policy & debt” that “should be easily rejected.”
Largely unmentioned is that Trump spent four years talking up a free-spending, big-ticket infrastructure package that likely would have included many of the items in the bipartisan deal—had he ever actually gotten any proposal off the ground.
Instead, the ex-president’s opposition to this bill appears grounded in the petty and the political, denying Biden a win and leaning into his preferred 2022 midterm narratives. On top of that, the Republicans most closely associated with the bipartisan deal Trump couldn’t strike as president are the ones he hates most, like Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).
“It probably strikes a chord with him because it’s a lot of the Senate Republicans he hates and it’s something he wanted to do and never got done,” said a senior GOP aide.
Even Trump supporters have openly acknowledged that reality. “He didn't give one reason why it’s a bad deal, other than it’s Joe Biden’s,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), a supporter of the deal, during a Fox News Business segment on Sunday where he was grilled by a skeptical Maria Bartiromo.
A solid Senate majority consisting of Democratic and Republican senators believes that the policy in the bipartisan infrastructure deal is popular with the public, propelling them to clear the Senate’s 60-vote threshold and pass the legislation by Tuesday—a vote that would represent a rare bipartisan triumph in a riven Congress.
“The Democrats want to argue that the Senate's broken, and we can't do anything, and so I think this is pretty good evidence that we can on a bipartisan basis,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who voted to advance the legislation.
“Obviously, he still has some clout,” Cornyn said of Trump. “But to me, the most important thing in any vote is not who supports it or doesn’t support it in terms of non-constituents, but whether your constituents support it.”
But the response in the House Republican ranks reflects a far different political calculus.
Since Jan. 6, the House GOP has increasingly solidified into a MAGA cheering section as their Senate counterparts have mostly sought to move past Trump. The divergence has been clear on key votes and in the behavior of each chamber’s leaders: Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is deep in the Trump fold while McConnell is effectively persona non grata.
The bipartisan infrastructure deal could provide one of the starkest split-screens yet this year between the two wings of the GOP on Capitol Hill, and show how enduring the ex-president’s influence is as he clings to his role as de facto party leader leading the charge against Biden’s agenda.
Trump’s argument against the bill “isn’t even that coherent,” the senior GOP aide told The Daily Beast, but the fact that it is tied to Biden “is going to be enough for a lot of House Republicans” to vote against it, they predicted.
In the absence of easy lines of attack, conservative advocates and groups have struggled with how to approach the bipartisan deal; some have urged GOP lawmakers to ignore it and instead focus all their fire on tanking the $3.5 trillion partisan bill that will carry a laundry list of Democratic priorities.
But it appears Trump’s angry but muddled opposition to the narrower and broadly popular bill has broken through to the party base, affecting even the calculations of GOP senators.
On Sunday and Monday, two GOP senators who voted to advance the bill—Todd Young of Indiana and Jerry Moran of Kansas—announced they will vote against final passage. They happen to be the only two Republicans out of the initial 18 who are up for re-election in 2022.
Moran, who cited concerns over the federal budget deficit in announcing his opposition, was subjected to a pressure campaign back home over his vote to proceed with the bill—orchestrated by an outside group associated with Marc Short, a former Trump White House official who is a top aide to former Vice President Mike Pence.
Cramer admitted to the New York Times that his constituents in deep-red North Dakota have given him grief for supporting the deal, saying some were “mad as hell.”
But House members, who represent smaller, more ideologically polarized constituencies who decide their fates every two years, are more vulnerable than senators to those kinds of pressures. Liam Donovan, a GOP strategist, explained that dynamic magnifies the apparent disparity in Trump influence that’s on display between the House and Senate.
“The House is a majoritarian institution, and both sides play their role accordingly,” said Donovan. “And the politics are reinforced by its structure—you're always in cycle, answerable to a narrower constituency, and rarely have the opportunity to forge an independent brand you can fall back on.”
The House GOP might be far Trumpier and unfriendlier to the infrastructure deal, but that doesn’t mean the conference is a monolith.
The Problem Solvers Caucus, which consists of both Democrats and Republicans, has actively supported the package. Some in the GOP believe that House Republicans running in tough districts will eagerly embrace an opportunity to claim a win on funding roads, bridges, airports, and more, even if it risks angering Trump.
McCarthy has kept his cards close on the bipartisan deal, and insiders believe he will wait to see if Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) can produce 218 votes for it from a fractious group of brinksmanship-loving Democrats with a half-dozen votes to spare.
Still, some Republicans might relish a chance not only to accomplish some bread-and-butter policy goals but take a clear step away from a figure at least some of them believe is toxic to the party.
"If we’re ever gonna get off the Trump drug,” said a GOP aide, “he just needs to take a bunch of L’s."