GOP Masks Tiny Infrastructure Counter-Offer With Lofty Claims And Muddied Numbers

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 27: Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) (C), lead Republican negotiator with the Biden administration on infrastructure, confers with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) and Sen. Roy B... WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 27: Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) (C), lead Republican negotiator with the Biden administration on infrastructure, confers with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) during a news conference about the GOP's $928 billion counteroffer at the U.S. Capitol on May 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. Insisting that the 2017 Trump tax cuts remain untouched, Senate Republicans suggested that money not spent as part of the COVID-19 American Rescue Plan be diverted to infrastructure. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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May 27, 2021 11:33 a.m.

A group of GOP senators made the cynical and likely futile move on Thursday of responding to President Biden’s infrastructure plan with a proposal that accounts for around a tenth of the spending that the White House has proposed. 

The GOP proposal, which Republican senators described as a reasonable alternative, constitutes a fraction of the $1.7 trillion in spending that Biden has already offered as a concession from his initial proposal of $2.3 trillion. That’s largely due to GOP reluctance to finance any new spending, opting instead to scavenge unused money from elsewhere. 

While GOP senators heralded the counteroffer as approaching $928 billion, there’s a big catch at the heart of it: only $257 billion is new spending. The remaining $671 billion, senators said, comes from repurposing money that was appropriated for the response to the COVID pandemic. 

“There’s a tremendous amount of money that was approved in previous bills, trillions of dollars, and many hundreds of billions have not even been spent yet,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) told reporters. 

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The hollowness of the counterproposal may be by design for Republicans, who have dragged out mostly unproductive negotiations for weeks. Everyone in Congress is aware of the uphill battle Democrats will wage in the 2022 midterms: historical precedence and largely GOP-controlled redistricting will make it difficult for Democrats to retain control over both chambers of Congress. 

That leaves Biden’s party a very short window to legislate before members’ focus shifts to campaigning, a clock Republicans are eager to run down.

This particular debate comes down to the question of payfors. Biden has committed to create new revenue to fund the infrastructure package, a key requirement of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). 

Biden has also already lowered his initial offer of $2.3 trillion down to $1.7 trillion as a concession to the GOP, who have been predictably and publicly wary of the moderate tax increases in the Biden plan.

But the GOP proposal unveiled today, with its $257 billion in new spending, ends up offering only a fraction of the new spending that Biden proposed: It would cover 15 percent of Biden’s already stepped-down offer, and 11 percent of the initial offer.

“This is substance and significance that we’re bringing forth,” averred Sen. John Barasso (R-WY).

Little Has Changed

While Barrasso called Thursday’s counter-proposal “a real offer,” the seemingly unsurpassable areas of disagreement remain the same as when this group of Republican senators unveiled their original counteroffer back in April. 

Then too, they insisted that the legislation be paid for, but took almost all the viable methods of doing so off the table: no changes to the tax code post-former President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, and no deficit spending.

All they offered up to fulfill their own requirements is the previously appropriated COVID funds, and some vague gesturing in the direction of “taxing people who use the infrastructure.” At Thursday’s press briefing, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) said that they are putting other payfors on the table too — and proceeded to mention only taxing electric vehicles.

And it comes after more than a decade of Republicans demanding that Democrats provide extensive and detailed revenue plans for any priority that they wanted to push. 

Throughout the Obama administration, the GOP would respond to proposal after proposal by asking how the Democrats planned to pay for it.

When the Democrats, as in a 2011 infrastructure proposal, responded with a proposal to generate new revenue by taxing the wealthy, the GOP treated it as an insult. 

“The Democrats have deliberately designed this bill to fail,” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said in 2011, responding to proposed tax increases on the wealthiest. “So the truth is, Democrats are more interested in building a campaign message than in rebuilding roads and bridges.”

That stands as a stark contrast to the current state of play in the GOP, where the notion of payfors appears to have been taken completely off the table.  

Bipartisanship With A Side Of Insult

Thursday’s press conference was also riddled with jabs at Democrats — a surprising component for a presentation supposedly about brokering a deal and bringing the parties closer together. 

Barrasso wasted little time in bringing up Larry Summers, a top economic adviser to former President Barack Obama, and a favorite weapon in the GOP arsenal. Summers has been pounding the alarm on the dangers of runaway inflation resulting from continued stimulus as the pandemic tails off and the economy rights itself. Republicans have gleefully echoed those warnings as rationale for opposing bigger legislation — all the while reminding their audiences that Summers worked for Democrats. 

The moderate Republicans on Thursday hit darker notes too, slyly resurrecting a Trump campaign attack from 2020: that “sleepy Joe” Biden is checked out, too pliable to make his own decisions. For a while, the campaign had tried out the premise that Biden was the senile puppet of the dangerous, radical Kamala Harris.

While the moderates left the Harris fear-mongering on the cutting room floor, they snuck in the idea that Biden is not really in charge of his own decisions. 

“The old nickname for Biden is ‘middle class Joe,’” Barrasso said. “This is something normally that he’d be for.”  

“They might override the President on this, overrule him,” he added of “the Democrats,” specifically House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). 

The group made their recurring case for “real infrastructure,” advocating for a series of smaller bills focused on narrow subjects like waterworks and highways. But they previewed their attack, should these negotiations fail — a result that’s seemed inevitable since they began — and Democrats go it alone with a big, multi-faceted infrastructure package passed through reconciliation. 

“Basically socialism camouflaged as infrastructure, which is the direction they’re headed,” Barrasso warned.  

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