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Why Republicans should give Biden his infrastructure deal

President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck

President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) met with fellow Democrats to discuss the latest progress on his infrastructure agenda. Credit: AP/Andrew Harnik

President Joe Biden has proved himself fairly desperate to get a deal with Senate Republicans on infrastructure. Now he appears to have one — and they ought to take yes for an answer.

As of this writing, negotiators from the two parties have an agreement on a bipartisan infrastructure framework, or BIF. And while they got the Republican votes necessary to overcome a Senate filibuster, there is no clear sign of Republican support in the House, where an absence of bipartisanship would leave open the possibility of left-wing defections. So there's still plenty of opportunity for things to fall apart.

If Republicans are smart, however, they'll sign on the dotted line even though it means letting Biden take a victory lap — not just on the infrastructure bill but on his unrealistic-sounding promise to work to unify the country.

The reason is that there's basically nothing in this framework that Democrats can't get done on a partisan basis through a budget reconciliation bill later this year. And if the moderate Democrats who negotiated this package with the GOP can't get their favorite provisions done in a bipartisan way, it will be easy enough for them to turn to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders and make sure they're included in the reconciliation instructions he's working on.

In other words, if Republicans scuttle the BIF, the leverage shifts from the Republican negotiators to Sanders, who will then have a much stronger hand in getting moderate Democrats to agree to a fairly expansive version of what a reconciliation bill should look like.

It's no coincidence that for months now progressives have been urging Biden to pull the plug on bipartisan talks while simultaneously insisting that such talks are doomed to failure. Within hours after the announcement of the BIF agreement, Crooked Media's Brian Beutler confidently predicted that Republicans would still kill the bill — but only after putting Democrats through a time-wasting amendment process.

This prediction may well come true. But it's Republicans who should pay it heed, because it's not so much a forecast as a wishcast — that is, the kind of prediction people make in part because they want it to be true.

Progressives have a lot of very ambitious ideas for the country, and not just on infrastructure. They also want expanded child tax credits and Medicare benefits, a whole new child care subsidy system, paid parental leave, subsidized home care for the elderly and disabled, and more. And it's clear that there are a bunch of congressional Democrats — not only the fabled Senate duo of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema but also a much larger bloc representing right-leaning states or districts on a skewed map — who sympathize with most of these goals but prefer that the party put a moderate foot forward.

Like Beutler, many progressives say this is a false choice. Republicans will never make a deal on anything, they say, so unless you want to abandon all hope of progress, you need to get with the left's program.

One influential strain of thought on both the left and the right is that the obstruction tactics the GOP deployed in 2009-2010 were rewarded in the 2010 midterms, and that Democrats need to respond by throwing caution to the wind.

Without throwing his former boss under the bus, Biden has long articulated a somewhat different interpretation: that former President Barack Obama's administration was a little too rigid and un-transactional, that it's still possible to cut deals. If Republicans prove Biden right by passing the BIF, that's a win for the president — and the left is undoubtedly correct that they don't want to deliver him a win.

But follow that logic one more step: A loss for Biden now would strengthen the left later. The coming debate over the reconciliation bill not only pits member against Democratic member, but also has a serious generational element to it. If no bill emerges from the BIF, arguments like Beutler's will (rightly) be much easier to make. Do Republicans really want to tip the scale in the progressives' favor?

Sinema has already made it clear that she'll chip away at Sanders' $3.5 trillion reconciliation proposal. But the right shouldn't be too confident that she'll ride to the rescue if they spurn a deal she was deeply involved in making. Six months ago the conventional wisdom was that Senate moderates would cut Biden's American Rescue Plan proposal down to size. Instead, sincerely persuaded that time was of the essence, they backed an almost shockingly large stimulus plan.

If Republicans show Democratic moderates that deal making has a future, those moderates will be empowered to push back against the left, forcing the reconciliation bill to be much smaller than what's currently on the table. But if Republicans kill the BIF, not only will they prove the progressive skeptics right. They will be trying the patience of even moderate Democrats — and making more progressive policy more likely.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Matthew Yglesias writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. A co-founder of Vox and a former columnist for Slate, he is also host of "The Weeds" podcast and is the author, most recently, of "One Billion Americans."

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