As Congress prepares to pass Joe Biden’s $1.9tn US stimulus bill, the administration and its Democratic allies are gearing up for their next big legislative priority: a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure package.
Some Democrats hope that a sweeping infrastructure bill will garner bipartisan support, unlike the stimulus package, which is likely to pass congress without a single Republican vote.
But the administration could struggle to craft legislation designed to overhaul creaking bridges, roads and broadband networks that appeals to Republicans while also fulfilling Biden’s ambitions on clean energy and racial equity.
In recent days, Biden has met with lawmakers from both parties as well as union leaders and government officials to discuss the contours of a package, and congressional Democrats say they expect him to press ahead as soon as the stimulus is signed into law.
“He wants to move as quickly as possible,” Peter DeFazio, the Democratic chairman of the House committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said after a meeting at the White House last week. “He wants it to be very big and he feels that this is the key to the recovery package.”
DeFazio has suggested that Congress could pass the infrastructure bill through a process known as reconciliation, the same manoeuvre it used to push the stimulus through the Senate without any Republican support.
Normally, legislation needs the backing of at least 60 senators due to “filibuster” rules, but reconciliation allows Democrats to pass bills in the Senate, which is split 50-50, because vice-president Kamala Harris has a tiebreaking vote.
“I am not going to get on a bill that cuts them out completely before we start trying,” Manchin said in a recent interview with Axios.
Manchin said he would be willing to back a package worth up to $4tn as long as it was paid for by tax increases. He believes that such a bill could secure the support of as many as 10 Republican senators along with the entire Democratic caucus, allowing it to be passed under normal Senate rules.
A sweeping infrastructure bill would include billions of dollars for updating highways, bridges and water and sewer lines, while also expanding broadband networks into rural areas.
Last week, the American Civil Society of Engineers gave a “C-minus” grade to US infrastructure and said the country needed to spend $2.8tn over the next decade to update its roads and railway lines.
While some projects could win Republican backing, Biden’s desire to also use the bill to help meet the administration’s goal of eliminating carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2035 — in part by increasing the number of electric-car charging stations — will prove a tougher sell.
Expanding sustainable housing and access to public transport in the pursuit of improving racial equity might also prove unpopular with some Republicans.
Spending on infrastructure — and the jobs created by big-ticket projects — enjoys widespread public support, and some Republicans have indicated that they would support a narrow bill focused on roads and broadband.
But they have tempered that support by voicing concerns over how a package will be paid for. During the election campaign, Biden suggested it could be funded by increasing taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, but some in his orbit argue that adding to deficit spending will allow the administration to move more quickly.
Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as a domestic policy aide to president Bill Clinton, said the Biden administration should consider breaking the infrastructure package into a series of separate smaller bills, including one focused solely on universal broadband access that has bipartisan support.
“The idea that you keep the agreeable parts in one big bill to push the rest of the train — I don’t think that’s going to work,” Galston added.
Galston said that the experience of pushing through the large $1.9tn stimulus package without Republican support might give some Democrats the confidence to use the same playbook for infrastructure.
He said they might think that “if they went big once, they can do it again — and if they have to do it with Democrats only, they will”.
But Galston warned “they should probably think again”.
Progressive Democrats disagree and argue that the Biden administration would be foolish to narrow the scope of its infrastructure ambitions, especially on climate and racial equity.
Kevin DeGood, the director of infrastructure policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said Democrats had learned two important lessons from Barack Obama’s presidency.
The first was that Obama’s 2009 stimulus package had been too small, which was the catalyst for their decision to pass a large $1.9tn bill this time round.
The second was that they cannot afford to wait while they try to find elusive Republican votes in the Senate.
“You can’t . . . chase this dangling carrot of bipartisanship indefinitely if that means that six months, or a year, or a year and a half, are going to go by, and the deal is still ultimately going to fall apart,” DeGood said.