America is a country where residents say in poll after poll that they want federal spending on infrastructure. They want improved water systems, improved roads, safe bridges, modernized airports, a modernized power grid, and expanded broadband access to rural areas.
Politicians in America’s capital agree. They, too, say they want a big infrastructure bill to pay for all of these improvements. Doing so is overdue, former president Donald Trump and current President Biden have said, arguing such spending would create jobs and make America more competitive globally.
Biden, a Democrat, has put a few specific plans on the table, and Democrats control the US House and US Senate, meaning that Democrats can drive the infrastructure policy and have the majorities that, in theory, could be used to pass a bill.
So, of course, the entire future is shaped by what Republicans decide.
Yes, in America in the year 2021, it’s the minority in the Senate that decides what the majority — in the Senate and even in America — gets to do. This has been true when it comes to items like immigration and gun control, and now it is even true when it comes to something much less partisan, like infrastructure.
As Biden stood next to Republicans a few weeks ago touting a bi-partisan compromise on a $1 trillion spending bill for infrastructure, a few things were less heralded. First, that group of senators only included five Republicans in agreement, when 10 are needed to push that bill past a filibuster challenge. Second, is that the details — where proverbially the devil lives — won’t be sorted out until this week at the earliest.
That means that reality could hit when lawmakers see that some particular bridge is not in the plan, or when a lobbyist sees a provision to pay for the bill that hits their client financially. This is where bills become harder to pass than easier.
As Capitol Hill staff write the text of the bill, much of the focus will be on Democrats, who lead the process. Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders is drawing up a second infrastructure bill he has now calculated to be at least $6 trillion — at least twice the entire annual federal budget. Will he go along with the first, bipartisan, version, and be willing to slim that second bill down? Will other progressive lawmakers, including Senator Ed Markey even allow an infrastructure bill to pass that doesn’t devote enough attention to addressing climate change? In a 50-50 Senate that could matter a great deal.
Then there is the macro-political balance of the entire bipartisan bill. The five Republicans who said they are on board conditioned their support on there not being a second bill later that would include funding for things like child care. Biden originally said he would only back the bipartisan bill if the Democratic-led second infrastructure bill was also passed, but then he backed off when Republicans got cold feet. But you know who didn’t back off? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats who are adept at counting votes.
But while we are focusing on Democrats now, in the end, any version that does or doesn’t pass comes down to what Republicans decide to do.
Republicans could still decide to go along with the $1 trillion deal hashed out with Biden. If they don’t, then everything in the bipartisan deal could get lumped in with the much larger bill Democrats are working on and hope to pass without Republican support. And given the razor-thin Democratic margin, the details will matter.
Over the July 4th weekend, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said there was a “decent chance” of Republican support for the bipartisan version, because, as his staff explained later, he is waiting to see what is actually in the bill. Bill text could materialize this week.
It could be possible that McConnell, who relishes his ability to block all Democratic efforts, could get on board with this plan. After all, the idea of infrastructure is really popular among the American public and the current two-track approach allows McConnell to support one bill with broadly popular bipartisan items, and then go on to attack any Democratic effort to fund child care and climate initiatives that might appear in a larger, second bill.
But, again, how his plays out is simply up to Republicans. Because in a country set up for the majority to rule, 232 years after the nation’s founding, it is the minority that actually does.