Finally! After months of excruciating negotiations, President Biden gets to take a victory lap in celebration of his own Big Freaking Deal.
Shortly before midnight Friday, the House passed the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package on a 228-to-206 vote — including 13 G.O.P. votes in an era of mind-numbing partisanship. With the bill on its way to the president’s desk, Biden declared on Saturday morning that the spending was a “once-in-a-generation investment” — and rightly so. For years, states have struggled to shore up deteriorating systems, much less move ahead with the new technology and projects needed to keep America competitive.
Multiple administrations and Congresses talked about addressing the problem. “Infrastructure week” became a running gag during Donald Trump’s presidency, because of his constant invocation of the concept and complete inability to deliver on it. But Joe Biden has delivered.
Admittedly, this is something of a partial delivery. The fate of the Build Back Better portion of Biden’s agenda, the ambitious social spending bill favoured by progressives, is yet to be determined. Having worked to nudge his progressives into line for this win, Biden’s next challenge, getting his centrists to embrace a version of Build Back Better, looms large — and has many in his party on edge.
But for now, let’s focus on the achievement in hand.
A major win for America
The infrastructure bill will provide close to $600 billion in new federal spending over the next decade on a cornucopia of infrastructure delights: roads, rail, ports, water systems, bridges, dams, airports, broadband! It puts $47 billion toward helping communities deal with the impacts of climate change. Jobs will be created, “the vast majority” of which, Biden stressed, would not require a college degree. “This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America,” he said.
It is also a much-needed win for Biden and congressional Democrats. For months, the public has suffered through the dispiriting sight of the party’s centrists and progressives slashing at each other over this bill and the Build Back Better plan to which it had been linked.
Both bills have experienced multiple near-death experiences, and many, many Americans were beginning to doubt whether Democrats had what it takes to get anything done. Their basic competence was being called into question, and the rolling spectacle of — altogether now! — Democrats In Disarray likely contributed to the party’s poor showing in Tuesday’s elections.
Certainly, Tuesday’s losses served as a cattle prod — especially the Republicans’ overwhelming win in Virginia, which many political watchers had assumed was a solidly blue state. “Put up or shut up!” voters seemed to be saying to Democrats.
Nothing focuses the mind like an electoral drubbing. The president and congressional leaders redoubled their efforts to get the feuding factions to take action on one, or preferably both, bills. Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke multiple times throughout Friday. She huddled with members in her office, while he worked the phones.
Late into the night, there were arms being twisted, egos being stroked and deals being cut. The process wasn’t pretty, but the sausage got made. It’s impossible to know how much this victory will restore voters’ shaken faith in the president and his party, but it is a crucial start. Biden is making good on a key campaign promise that will benefit people in all 50 states. Ultimately, that is what Americans care about.
A special victory dance
While we’re handing out kudos, Pelosi deserves to do a special victory dance of her own. Once again, the speaker showed that she knows how to herd her cats — even as they threatened to turn feral. Getting her progressive members to agree to embrace the infrastructure package without a vote on the social spending plan was a minor miracle. This achievement should rank right up there with Obamacare in terms of cementing Ms. Pelosi’s leadership legacy.
In addition to its substantive merits, this bill allows Biden to point and say: See, I told you I could get a big bipartisan win! Again, 13 House Republicans crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats. Only a half dozen progressives wound up opposing the bill. In this hyperpolarised age, with Republicans making obstructionism their go-to legislative move, this is something to crow about.
That said, the Democrats’ work is far from done. To get progressives to advance the infrastructure bill, several House centrists signed a statement committing themselves to supporting Build Back Better if a cost analysis from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office meets their expectations. That estimate is expected some time mid-November, and House leaders are now aiming for a vote during the week of Nov. 15.
Now, it doesn’t take a political whizz to recognise that there is a whole lot of wiggle room in the centrists’ promise. It also won’t matter much what House moderates have committed to if Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema, the two Democratic centrists in the Senate who have been working to whittle the social spending bill down to a twig of its original form, decide they aren’t interested in passing anything else.
Certainly, this is what progressives have feared all along: that once the party’s moderates got their beloved infrastructure dollars, they would have no incentive to support the investments in “human infrastructure” that progressives favour.
Tensions are high
Centrists need to allay their colleagues’ fears and get serious about finalising a compromise plan. This monthslong standoff has exacerbated rifts within the Democrats’ big tent. Tensions are high. Feelings are bruised. Trust is at an all-time low. The president has put his credibility on the line in these negotiations.
Thus far, progressives have shown themselves much more serious about making compromises — even painful ones — in order to assuage the concerns of their spending-shy teammates. In passing the infrastructure bill, progressives gave up their leverage. Centrists need to respond with their own show of flexibility. A failure to do so risks fracturing the party’s already strained coalition.
It would also be a kick in the teeth to the millions of Americans who stand to benefit from the broadly popular measures contained in Build Back Better.
Biden and his congressional team deserve to bask in this moment. But they should only give themselves two cheers. There is more to be done. Will the next step be easy? Of course not. But as Nelson Mandela once observed — and this week’s infrastructure win drives home: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Michelle Cottle is an American columnist
The New York Times