As Republicans Wobble On Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, Convenient Offramps Await

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 30: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell (R-KY) answers questions following the weekly Republican policy luncheon on July 30, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

There were a few short, golden hours after the news broke that the White House and a bipartisan team of senators had come to an infrastructure framework agreement where the Republicans involved eagerly supported it.

“I think the overall integrity of the plan has been kept intact, and we’re working out a few questions on the payfors now, but I intend to support it,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) told TPM when the deal was made in late June. 

He added that he did not think the ongoing payfor debate was robust enough to derail the deal, saying “the priorities for projects and the underlying framework is a solid framework and I’m glad President Biden has come out and said that he would support it.”  

Since then, the bipartisan plan has teetered on the brink of collapse on a weekly basis, as many of the Republicans involved in forging it seek a way out. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) spearheaded the first round of GOP wobbling soon after the White House endorsed the plan, as he and senators who brokered the deal feigned surprise and fury that Democrats intended to proceed with the bipartisan deal and larger package slated to be passed through reconciliation in tandem.

“The President cannot let congressional Democrats hold a bipartisan bill hostage over a separate and partisan process,” McConnell said in a statement.

The GOP anger seemed hollow from the first, given the many recorded examples of Republicans acknowledging, even encouraging, such a Democratic strategy.

“Lots of people are trying really hard to get to ‘no’ here,” Rich Gold, a former Senate advisor and current leader of lobbying firm Holland & Knight’s public policy group, observed to TPM in a recent interview.

The White House seemed to get the deal back on track with a few days of whipping, shortly before the Senate departed for a two week recess.

Now, like Weebles in suits, the returning Republicans are back to their wobbling ways. 

Some are resurrecting the old arguments about Democrats linking the bills. 

“I’m still troubled by the suggestion that both bills are tied together,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) told reporters Monday. 

Others are quibbling about how to pay for the deal, debates Tillis said were mostly “around the edges” just three weeks ago. 

“We’ve always thought the infrastructure payfors were going to be a challenge,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) told reporters Monday. “We want to have payfors. We’ve got some good ones. The CBO might not give us full credit.”

This initial payfor squirming may get worse when the bill is scored by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). There is already some consternation that the CBO won’t find some measures in the package as profitable as the legislators think they’ll be, resulting in a low score that could provide newly debt-conscious Republicans with a tailor-made reason to jump ship. 

One provision in particular that may cause problems is adding $40 billion to the IRS budget to beef up enforcement of very wealthy tax evaders — a provision the bipartisan lawmakers estimate will net $100 billion in tax revenue. Some Republicans are iffy on the proposal in the first place, raising concerns about how much power IRS agents would have to collect the owed money.

“I have no faith that McConnell is not gonna do everything he can to justify why the bill shouldn’t get Republican support — he’ll quibble with the dynamic scoring and actual score when it comes out,” a former longtime Senate staffer told TPM. “We’ve been going through that process with payfors.” 

How the minority leader reacts to bumps along the road like the CBO scoring is sure to determine if many of his members will support the bill or not — and he has ample road left to identify the potholes he deems impassible.  

“I never underestimate McConnell; he’s a master of the dark arts,” Gold quipped.

“It gets a little sticky if McConnell is able to pull more than just a couple Republicans away from the bill,” the staffer said. “It’s just a math problem: if McConnell is able to pull eight of the 10 or 11 Republican negotiators back, and Democrats potentially lose a few votes, things start to get tricky.” 

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