As Dems Walk Infrastructure Tightrope, Charlie Brown Tendencies Threaten Delicate Balance

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 9: (L-R) Sen. Angus King (I-ME), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) speak with each other after a closed-door meeting with fellow Democratic Senators, on Capitol Hill, July 9, 2013 in Washington, DC. The senators fielded questions from the media on student loan legislation. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Sen. Angus King (I-ME), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) speak with each other after a closed-door meeting with fellow Democratic Senators, on Cap... Sen. Angus King (I-ME), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) speak with each other after a closed-door meeting with fellow Democratic Senators, on Capitol Hill (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) MORE LESS
July 3, 2021 9:00 a.m.

It’s the classic criticism of Democratic politicians: while Republicans tear up the rulebook and prioritize winning over all else, Democrats insist on teamwork even with bad-faith actors. 

To put it more succinctly: Republicans are Lucy and Democrats, Charlie Brown. No matter how many times she snatches the football away, Charlie Brown obligingly kicks, getting a body full of bruises for trusting someone who has only ever shown that she can’t be trusted. 

So far during the infrastructure negotiations, Democrats have bucked that trend. They’ve largely ignored the insincere Republican whining about the bipartisan and reconciliation bills being linked, and are pressing on with that strategy. Even President Joe Biden’s clarifying statement after days of Republican gripes maintained that he considers the bills to be in tandem.

But old habits die hard. 

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For instance: Earlier this week, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), a member of the Senate Budget Committee handling reconciliation, suggested that if the bipartisan negotiations fall through, Democrats will just wrap the bipartisan deal, concessions to the GOP and all, into their reconciliation bill — a package not expected to get any Republican votes.

“We would say, ‘okay you killed the bipartisan deal. But okay, you gave us some good ideas,” he told reporters. “And you’re going to see your priorities included here in reconciliation.”

TPM reached out to Kaine’s office to see if the senator was just speculating, or if that option was on the table should bipartisan talks fail.

“Senator Kaine was saying that if Republicans are unwilling to help pass a bipartisan infrastructure package, then Democrats will take the burden to do a comprehensive infrastructure package on their shoulders and ensure that investments in critical areas like broadband, roads, bridges, water infrastructure and other needs are incorporated into a reconciliation bill,” a Kaine spokesperson said. “Just as he and his Democratic colleagues did when passing the American Rescue Plan, Senator Kaine wants to ensure that this reconciliation package includes priorities from Democrats and Republicans across the country.” 

Budget committee chair Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) office declined to comment, and Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) office did not reply to questions. 

While bipartisan talks seem back on track for now, after days of GOP shirt-rending, and Kaine’s hypothetical may potentially never come to pass, such a position could even risk derailing those delicate negotiations — why would Republicans bother to remain in talks that’ll deliver the Biden administration a win if Democrats promise to get their proposals passed through reconciliation anyway? 

“It makes absolutely no sense,” a former longtime Democratic Senate staffer told TPM. “Take electric vehicle charging for example — if this deal falls apart, why wouldn’t you make it $45 billion in reconciliation?” The number for electric vehicle infrastructure in the bipartisan deal is currently $15 billion, short of the $45 billion Schumer has pitched and “not enough by any measure,” the former aide added.

“I think the senator was probably just talking from the top of his head and was caught without a chance to think about what would happen,” Rich Gold, a former Senate advisor and current leader of lobbying firm Holland & Knight’s public policy group, told TPM. “Really, you think if we’re passing a Democrats-only bill, Biden’s gonna settle for that number on electric vehicles? I wouldn’t say that’s the position of the party.” 

There is a looming factor present in the negotiations that will likely force Democrats to scale back the amount of spending in reconciliation in general, and that could still present a big problem should the bipartisan deal fall apart: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). 

Manchin has already floated his ideal topline number for a reconciliation package as somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 trillion, a far cry from Sanders’ ideal $6 trillion. 

“One of the biggest questions if the bipartisan deal falls apart is, will he accept a larger reconciliation package than the $1.5 to $2 trillion he suggested he could accept?” political strategist Jim Manley, a former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Senate Democratic caucus, told TPM.

Manchin’s status as the critical 50th vote guarantees there will be at least some intra-Democratic debate on the spending levels in the reconciliation bill, whether or not the bipartisan bill passes. As President Joe Biden made clear this week, there will likely not be additional hard infrastructure spending in the reconciliation bill if the bipartisan deal goes through. While that’s a position sure to annoy particularly progressive Democrats, it makes some logical sense: Biden is willing to trade additional hard infrastructure funding for a bipartisan victory. 

But as of now, Democrats are still negotiating with Republicans — not yet amongst, or against, themselves.

“Maybe Kaine was saying you gotta make sure to keep this in a realm that the conservative flanks of the Senate Democratic caucus will support,” the former Senate staffer said of the reconciliation package. “But that’s too cute by half at this stage in the game.”

While what Democrats would do if the bipartisan deal falls apart is still a hypothetical — talks seem to be back on track this week, though the Senate is in recess and most members back in their home states — its passage is far from a lock. 

“Oftentimes, one side or the other begins to get spooked and people begin to bail,” Chay English, a Capitol Hill veteran now a vice president at the BGR lobbying group, told TPM. “There’s been a little bit of that already, with some Republicans saying ‘we don’t like tone and tenor of the White House, we don’t like what Pelosi is doing holding this package hostage.’”

The negotiations became even more delicate as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) led his caucus into manufactured fury that Democrats still planned to do the reconciliation bill in step with the bipartisan one, even demanding that leadership explicitly decouple the two pieces of legislation.

“I have no faith that McConnell is not gonna do everything he can to justify why the bill shouldn’t get Republican support,” the former aide said, pointing specifically to upcoming opportunities for the Republican leader in the CBO scoring of the bill.

There’s a long road ahead, peppered with obstacles for Democrats who have to both keep their big tent caucus together and navigate GOP attacks. Lucy always tees up the football — it’s up to Charlie Brown to decide whether to kick. 

Josh Kovensky contributed reporting to this story.

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