The Senate Notches A Bipartisan Infrastructure Win. Now On To The Main Event

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 03: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY)(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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After many fits and starts, the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed the Senate with an overwhelming majority Tuesday morning, a rare moment of comity in a hyper-polarized time. 

The final vote was 69-30, with Vice President Kamala Harris gaveling its final passage. A total of 19 Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), joined Democrats to pass the legislation.  

Next, the bill will go to the House for consideration … eventually. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has held firm that she will not take up the bipartisan bill until the Senate passes the reconciliation package, a process that may take months. It’s part of the two-track plan Democratic leadership devised, ensuring that moderates don’t slip away after their bipartisan bill is finished and deprive progressives of their end of the bargain.

Now is the moment those on the left flank of the caucus have been waiting for — the crafting of the reconciliation package. 

If all goes according to plan, it will be the most sweeping and progressive piece of legislation since the Affordable Care Act, and maybe even before that. This window is critical for Democrats, and ephemeral.

With the filibuster intact, a reality that endures thanks to Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), there is virtually no chance that Democrats will get another opportunity to pass anything large and meaningful before the 2022 midterms. Then, Republicans could flip at least one chamber of Congress, depriving Democrats of the ability to really legislate at all for the remainder of President Joe Biden’s first term.

And from there, the future is uncertain. Republican legislatures across the country are writing bills to make it harder to vote, and even now, are preparing to gerrymander their states in a way that will further stack the odds against Democratic candidates. Due to the aforementioned senators maintaining the filibuster, any federal voting rights safeguards to counteract those measures are currently dead on arrival in the Senate.

The remaining reconciliation vehicle is Democrats’ only guaranteed pathway to passing progressive, if not any, legislation for the foreseeable future. Stakes are extraordinarily high.

The first step is to pass a budget resolution, which will include topline numbers and broad instructions and allocations to committees to start fleshing out the legislative text. 

The deal reached between the White House and Senate Budget Committee is an overall price tag of $3.5 trillion. Sinema said recently that she doesn’t support a package of that size; we’ll see if she acts on that disapproval. 

Advocacy groups of all stripes — environmentalists, labor activists, immigration reformers, industry representatives — are already jockeying to get their biggest priorities into the reconciliation package. Thanks to the current $3.5 trillion topline and squeamishness among centrist Democrats about big spending, there’s not a bottomless pot to draw from, meaning that some Democratic priorities will elbow others aside. 

Democrats are hoping to get the budget resolution passed before August recess, though Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has repeatedly said they’ll work through the off-time if it means getting this done. Sinema, amazingly, has said that she refuses to miss her scheduled vacation — again, we’ll see.

At that point, committee staffers will do the heavy lifting of actually writing the text, which the Senate Budget Committee ultimately stitches back together into the reconciliation package. This process will likely stretch into the fall. 

The reconciliation bill is not expected to get any Republican votes; indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has already taken to the floor almost daily to decry it as an exercise in wanton spending for a socialist wishlist. While his initial attempts to sink it sputtered out — faux outrage over the linkage of the bipartisan and reconciliation bills — his new gambit involves the debt ceiling, another item on lawmakers’ short-term to-do list. 

Congress must raise the debt ceiling to keep the United States from defaulting on its debts, an eventuality that could touch off a domestic and global economic catastrophe. Republicans, fond of playing an alarmingly high-stakes game of chicken with the debt ceiling, say they’ll refuse to vote to raise it. In a transparent effort to make it harder for Democrats to pass the reconciliation package, McConnell has suggested that they just do it there with a simple majority.

Democrats don’t want to give moderates a new reason to vote against the reconciliation package, and are reportedly going a different route — yoking raising the debt-ceiling to a spending bill in September Congress must pass to ward off a government shutdown. 

This drama will likely play out while Democrats are still working on the reconciliation package.

So it’s a brief moment of bipartisan bonhomie to be enjoyed by all. Joe “loves to reach across the aisle” Biden gets a feather in his cap, while both Democrats and Republicans who voted for the measure get to tout their work to the constituents back home. 

But the back-slapping will be short-lived, and the legislation itself pales in comparison to the potentially historic piece that comes next.

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