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Bipartisanship faces difficult test with big infrastructure bill

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) speaks to members

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) speaks to members of the media after a vote on Capitol Hill on Thursday. Manchin's opposition to ending the filibuster has forced an effort at bipartisanship.   Credit: Bloomberg/Al Drago

WASHINGTON — It’s a tough test of bipartisanship: Can a filibuster-proof majority of the U.S. Senate reach an agreement on a massive infrastructure investment that for Democrats must be big enough, and that for Republicans includes no tax hikes to fund it?

That’s what a group of five Republican moderate and five Democratic moderate senators is trying to do after President Joe Biden ended talks last Monday with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) about a nearly $928 billion Republican proposal that fell short of Biden's $1.7 trillion offer.

Last Thursday, the moderates announced they had settled on a proposal and would begin the difficult task of rounding up enough senators in each party to get to the magic number of 60, which current Senate rules require to end a filibuster that awaits any infrastructure bill.

What to know

  • Moderate Republican and Democratic U.S. senators have taken on the high-wire task of crafting a massive infrastructure bill that can survive a filibuster.
  • President Joe Biden set the stage for the effort by stressing the need for more bipartisanship in Congress.
  • But Democrats and Republicans in the nearly evenly divided Senate are skeptical.

"We're trying to reach everybody in the conference, and I'm sure that our Democratic colleagues are reaching out to all those," Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said Thursday. "We have to, again, have our colleagues, whichever party you're in, buy into it."

Both Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have said they’re open to a bipartisan proposal, though neither is involved in the deal-making or efforts to recruit supporters.

Biden set the stage for this exercise, which has prompted skepticism from members in both party caucuses, by stressing the need for more bipartisanship in Congress, with an infrastructure bill to send money to the district of every member of Congress as exhibit A.

Voters generally say they like the idea of Democrats and Republicans in Congress working together.

But the more committed members of the two parties also want their representatives or senators to stick up for their values and policies, scholars have found.

The ultimate test of bipartisanship will be whether the group of 10 can find 50 more senators to agree to vote for their legislation — a long shot.

Schumer said Thursday he would take a close look at the moderates' proposal.

It would cost $974 billion over five years — standard for highway spending — or $1.2 trillion if spread over eight years, which is more than Capito’s $330 billion in new spending in a $928 billion package, a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press.

"I was told verbally, stuff. I’ve asked for paper. I’ll look at it," Schumer said last Thursday. "But we continue to proceed on two tracks. A bipartisan track and a reconciliation track, and both are moving forward."

Schumer has little choice but to wait out attempts at bipartisanship after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the most conservative member of the Senate Democrats’ caucus, doubled down in an op-ed last Sunday on his refusal to vote to end the filibuster.

It takes 51 votes to change the rules. Schumer leads an evenly divided Senate — 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats — but only with the help of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote.

That means Schumer cannot lose a single Democratic vote, giving Manchin powerful leverage.

Schumer could be using the infrastructure bill to show Manchin that bipartisanship doesn’t work on key legislative issues in the Democrat’s' ambitious agenda, experts said.

McConnell said any infrastructure bill that passes must be bipartisan, despite Schumer's plans to use budget reconciliation, which requires only a majority to pass bills, so he doesn't need Republican votes.

"We’ve passed six major bills on a bipartisan basis so far in the first five months of this year in the Senate, working together. We’re trying to get an outcome on infrastructure, something that is popular on both sides of the aisle," McConnell said on Fox News last Thursday.

"All we're insisting on is that the infrastructure bill be about infrastructure and not a whole lot of other things, and that it be credibly paid for," McConnell said.

McConnell rejects the inclusion of Democrats' "social infrastructure" that funds child care, education and health care, and opposes tax increases on wealthy individuals or corporations. Biden's plan includes both.

The Senate has passed major bills with bipartisan majorities.

Just last week, the Senate voted 68 to 32 for the United States Innovation and Competition Act to invest $250 billion over five years — without a specific source of funding — to improve competitiveness with China.

But those bills don’t appear to McConnell and his Republican senators to be giving Democrats a political advantage or advance their agenda, scholars told Newsday.

"It is the norm for legislation to be bipartisan. What is not the norm, though, is for signature legislation associated with one of the political parties to come out with bipartisan support," said Sean J. Westwood, an expert on partisan politics at Dartmouth University.

And the minority party, whether Republican or Democrat, often uses a filibuster works to block the majority party's priorities.

McConnell has deployed two successful filibusters so far, blocking a bill to combat pay discrimination against women and LGBTQ workers and a resolution to create a January 6 Commission to investigate the insurrection at the Capitol.

With control of Congress and the White House, Democrats have reason to be concerned about producing a record of success, said Laurel Harbridge-Yong, a Northwestern political science professor who studies Congress.

People expect the party in control to be able to pass legislation, she said, "and if they aren't getting things done it typically hurts the party in power."

Doubts cloud the prospects for the bipartisan group’s efforts.

The group briefed White House staff on its proposal, White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. But he added, continued "questions need to be addressed, particularly around the details of both policy and pay-fors, among other matters."

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) warned last week on Fox News, "It’s hard for me to see a scenario where even 10 Republicans would vote for something that gets very far beyond where Shelley’s discussions were with the White House."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, is preparing to set up the budget reconciliation process so Democrats can avoid the filibuster and pass their legislation without Republican votes.

"Do I believe we will have 10 Republican votes to do something significant on physical infrastructure — for climate, for human infrastructure, for health care, for education?" Sanders said on MSNBC last week. "No, I don’t."

Trust between the two parties in Congress is in short supply.

"I think there should be realization that we've gone about as far as we can go. The pay-for side is the more problematic. The president has sent mixed signals to us, unfortunately," Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said last week about determining how to find funding to pay for the legislation.

"I think there are sincere Republicans out there in the Senate and House that would like to get something done," said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a center-left group, who once served as legislative and policy director for Schumer.

"Ultimately, Mitch McConnell does not want to get something done," Kessler told Newsday.

"There's a playbook that has worked in past Democratic presidencies, which is cooperate as little as possible, force Democrats further to the left, clean up in the midterms," Kessler said.

"You know, they're following that playbook," he said.

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