One day in late June, President Joe Biden and a group of 10 senators from both parties emerged from the Oval Office and declared they’d reached an agreement on a bipartisan, multi-billion dollar infrastructure deal—the foundation of a signature win for a president obsessed with bipartisanship.
Despite that group of senators working furiously to finalize a deal, four weeks later, no deal has materialized. There’s no bill, or even concrete details, for colleagues to consider. And those colleagues are growing impatient.
“After four years of infrastructure week, it's time to act,” said Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA), referencing the continual—and ultimately fruitless—infrastructure push from the Trump administration. “Four weeks ago, they announced a deal, an agreement. How did they announce an agreement four weeks ago and right now, there's no deal today?”
With the summer recess looming, and everyone hearing the clock tick down on the most productive period of their control of Washington, Democrats are starting to question the wisdom of waiting for a bipartisan breakthrough when they have the tools to go it alone.
Although five Republicans are part of the core negotiating group in the Senate, five more would need to vote in favor of the bill to clear the 60-vote threshold for passage—assuming all 50 Democrats vote yes, which is not a guarantee.
And if Democratic senators are increasingly saying the time to move forward is now, progressives in the House say it was time to move forward yesterday.
“It’s unacceptable that we’ve waited this long,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told The Daily Beast. “We should have gone ahead, because if Republicans didn’t agree three months ago, they didn’t agree yesterday, are we really going to get 10 Republicans to agree in a week?”
Some Republicans insist that’s exactly the case.
“There’s no reason to be skeptical, because these guys have worked awfully hard and are pretty darn committed to it,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), who is open to supporting a bipartisan deal but was not among the original five Republicans to signal support.
“Infrastructure’s a popular deal, we all know that. I think people would like to be part of something positive,” he said.
As long as Republicans like Cramer are singing that tune, Biden and other bipartisan-minded Democrats—namely the Senate’s key swing vote, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)—want to stay at the table. If a narrow package to fund things like roads, bridges, broadband and water systems can’t get 60 votes in today’s Senate, they argue, then what can?
That question is one many Democrats are asking, particularly the ones who’d like to eliminate the filibuster—or at least move on with a much larger, Democrat-only reconciliation package that could pass the Senate with just 50 votes and deliver on nearly all of their climate, health care, and economic priorities.
Those Democrats are starting to feel captive to the bipartisan project—even if they think it’s just as likely it’ll go down in flames.
“The President wants to explore the bipartisan route, and so do a number of my colleagues,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). “I credit them with putting hope over experience.”
That skepticism isn’t unfounded.
Democrats famously used up a great deal of valuable time negotiating with Republicans over provisions in the Affordable Care Act in 2009 before ultimately getting no GOP support. Many are convinced that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has kept his cards close on the infrastructure deal, would relish running the clock out on infrastructure now.
While the bipartisan group might have little to show for all their late-night negotiating sessions and happy talk in the Senate hallways, most observers concede they’re on track to produce some legislation. The more pressing questions are when, and whether it could get enough support.
Even though nothing is locked down, there’s some consensus on what a bipartisan deal would have to look like to get GOP support: a roughly $600 billion package to revitalize transportation systems, strengthen water and energy infrastructure, and expand broadband.
The problem is—as is often the case in Washington—how does Congress pay for it. So far, negotiators have proposed the equivalent of a Washington junk sale to avoid raising taxes. Among the proposals are selling off government oil reserves, tapping unspent COVID-19 relief cash, and soliciting private investment.
One of those so-called pay-fors—giving the Internal Revenue Service more money to prosecute tax cheats and thus recoup more revenue—was rejected by Republicans, already making the financing of the package even tougher and perhaps endangering the bipartisan deal altogether.
As he works to keep his caucus together to pass two pieces of Democrats’ agenda, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has attempted to prod the bipartisan group. Last week, he vowed to hold a vote to open debate on the deal—even though a bill literally did not exist—in an attempt to force a put-up-or-shut-up moment.
Ultimately, neither happened. The vote failed on Wednesday, but the bipartisan group bought a little more time, and there are indications that they could produce a bill by early next week.
In a statement after Wednesday’s vote, the 22 senators in the bipartisan working group—which include centrists like Manchin, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)—said they “have made significant progress and are close to a final agreement.”
Democrats are eagerly waiting to see if the other more conservative Republicans in the group will buy into the final product. Meanwhile, Republicans say it’s on Democrats to produce something they can support.
“It’s really as much as anything up to Democrats to be reasonable enough to secure 10 Republicans,” said Cramer. “I’d like to get 20 Republicans. But I’m not one of them yet.”
While that onus may be flawed, and the entire bipartisan gambit may be built on the shaky assumption that there are 10 Republican senators who are willing to hand Biden and Democrats a win on infrastructure, Democrats continue holding out hope.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), a member of Democratic leadership, told The Daily Beast that he fully expects GOP negotiators to bring along enough of their colleagues.
“They have to deliver, otherwise it’s nonsense, right?” he said. “If they don’t bring 10 votes, I don’t even know what we’re talking about, honestly.”