Almost exactly one month ago, Joe Biden stood outside the White House flanked by a bipartisan group of senators and announced they had reached an infrastructure deal. “We all agree that none of us got all we wanted,” he said. But this was, if you looked at it the right way, a good thing. “This reminds me of the days when we used to get an awful lot done up in the United States Congress,” the president continued. “Neither side got everything they wanted in this deal. That’s what it means to compromise. And it reflects something important—it reflects consensus. The heart of democracy requires consensus.”
The consensus didn’t last long. Only a couple hours later, the whole deal seemingly fell apart because Biden promised to pass a more ambitious and expensive bill—one with only Democratic support—alongside the bipartisan package. Now Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is trying to jump-start the legislative process and wrest control of that process from Republicans, who have thus far been able to dictate terms of the deal despite not having majorities in either the House or Senate. The first test of this approach will come on Wednesday, when Schumer plans to call a key procedural vote to advance a House transportation bill that contains many central parts of what he hopes will be the final infrastructure bill. It’s the New York senator’s riskiest move yet during this round of legislative maneuvering, and Politico reported Tuesday that Republicans were likely to vote against Schumer, which will damage if not destroy the chance of a bipartisan agreement. Schumer’s gamble is clearly that if the deal dies, it will be the GOP that gets the blame for being overly partisan—and it’s hard to see that he has any other choice.
The prospects for a bipartisan infrastructure framework—or “BIF,” in the acronym-clogged argot of Washington—have always been slim, largely because Republicans seem to be looking for an excuse to pick up their toys and leave. When Biden announced his support for the second bill, which would use reconciliation to bypass the Senate’s filibuster rules, the GOP pretended this was a shocking betrayal of their negotiations. “If [Biden’s] gonna tie them together, he can forget it!” Lindsey Graham, one of the handful of Senate Republicans negotiating with Democrats, told Politico last month. “I’m not doing that. That’s extortion! I’m not going to do that. The Dems are being told you can’t get your bipartisan work product passed unless you sign on to what the left wants, and I’m not playing that game.”
What Graham didn’t mention is that he and the GOP leadership were playing a similar game, insisting that they would only vote for an infrastructure package if the Democrats promised not to use reconciliation to pass other priorities, like childcare, climate change, and education—causes the Democratic base rightfully demands its party pursue now that it has rare control of Congress and the White House. That Republican demand could be considered extortion, as well. Most people, however, would call it politics.
After losing the Senate and presidency in the 2020 election, Republicans have a weaker hand than Democrats, but they have played it aggressively. Knowing that Biden pitched himself as a president who can bring back bipartisanship (not unlike Barack Obama before him), Republicans have an enormous amount of leverage, especially given that Democrats have a razor-thin majority in both legislative chambers. If a bipartisan bill is going to pass the Senate, it needs at least 10 Republicans in tow.
The Republican senators in negotiation with Biden and the Democrats have used that leverage not only to shrink the size of the bill and reduce its scope to only physical infrastructure but also to slow down the process. They have argued that this kind of tinkering takes time; but there are also signs that they’re trying to run out the clock, waiting until the midterms get closer and members of Congress get skittish. Republicans are taking an ever more recalcitrant pose, insisting that the bill include mechanisms to pay for infrastructure projects but refusing to raise taxes or enable the IRS to go after wealthy tax cheats. After making it more difficult to hammer out legislative language, Republicans objected to Schumer’s call for a procedural vote on Wednesday to move the legislative process forward, on the grounds they didn’t have legislative language. (Mitch McConnell, when he was majority leader, had no problem moving forward on major legislation before having a bill’s full text.)
By forcing a vote on Wednesday, Schumer is attempting to get the Senate on his timetable, as opposed to one controlled by the opposition. That vote is likely to fail, with all 50 Republicans, including the 10 bipartisan negotiators, voting against. This will not be the end of the beloved BIF—“We’ve resurrected everything but Lazarus around here, so we can resurrect this one,” West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin told Politico on Tuesday—but it will hopefully be the end of the GOP running the show on infrastructure.
Schumer is making a gamble that one of the available avenues will pay off—that either Republicans will rally around the bipartisan bill or his caucus will rally around a multitrillion-dollar spending bill that can pass via a party line vote. Forcing a vote is also a play to prevent the GOP from gumming up the works of Congress for the rest of the year: The ultimate goal is to have something for Joe Biden to sign soon, even if it’s highly unlikely that will happen in the near future.
If Republicans are serious about moving forward with BIF, they can negotiate in good faith. If not, Democrats can move on to the reconciliation bill, which for progressives is a bigger prize anyway. This outcome is, of course, far from guaranteed—given the slim margin for error, moderates or progressives could potentially sink the deal. (For instance, centrist senators would have to ignore their instinct to compromise with Republicans.) But politically speaking, this is better territory for Democrats than letting Republicans like Graham dictate the way forward, or stall negotiations until midterm season rolls around and legislating on any major issue becomes impossible.
Schumer seems to be particularly antsy about what he’s up to. “It is not a cynical ploy. It is not a fish-or-cut-bait moment. It is not an attempt to jam anyone,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. “It’s only a signal that the Senate is ready to get the process started—something the Senate has routinely done on other bipartisan bills this year.” He’s right that it’s not cynical, but it is a ploy. We are probably months away from whatever infrastructure bill—or bills—come out of this process. Republicans, at the moment, are insisting that they’re good-faith partners while also simultaneously working to stymie progress at every opportunity. It’s time to force their hand.