After months of endless negotiating, many smart observers in Washington said there was simply no way the US Senate would ever pass a major infrastructure bill. After all, 10 Republicans needed to sign on to advance the bill. And amid the fits and starts during two different bipartisan working groups, it appeared like the clock was ticking and it was time for Democrats to just move on.
Then Tuesday, after six months where this bill was the lead topic in Washington and three months after Biden held a press conference saying there was a deal, the Senate proved the critics wrong. The bill passed 69-30, with 19 Republican Senators agreeing, including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
Now with the US House in charge of the bill, it is hard to know where any of this is going. While on Thursday it looked like there was a clear game plan, albeit one that would take until the fall to complete, on Friday the discussion blew up into a game of chicken with Democrats on both sides.
But amid the swirl of headlines, posturing, and personalities, here is an attempt to lay out where things stand, how things are likely to proceed, and how, specifically, it could all go wrong in a hurry.
And I’ll try to be brief.
Where things stand
Democratic Congressional leaders and the White House have been pursuing a two-track plan to deliver a pair of bills that would 1) spend massively to improve the nation’s infrastructure and 2) address items like universal pre-k, affordable child care, expanded paid family and medical leave, and free community college, among other things.
As mentioned above, the Senate passed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan on Tuesday and then Wednesday moved a resolution that basically allows the Senate to start tinkering with what is now a $3.5 trillion so-called budget reconciliation package.
While the Senate took up infrastructure first, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she will take up the budget reconciliation package first whenever the Senate gives her the full plan. Then she will get around to the infrastructure plan.
Why? It’s pretty simple: math. Senate Democrats had to get Republicans over the hump first with at least 60 votes for infrastructure to overcome a filibuster. If that didn’t work then the whole thing was off, or Democrats would have to find another way. The reconciliation bill only needs a simple majority in the House and Senate.
House Democrats have a different math problem. Pelosi needs the 90 or so progressive members (who make up roughly half of the Democratic majority) to vote with her. They want the reconciliation bill first and they will get it.
Why everything blew up on Friday
Democrats only have a three-person majority in the House, meaning that if three of their members vote against the rest of the caucus, all bets are off. That is why it mattered when nine centrist Democrats put their name on a public letter saying they would tank the reconciliation bill unless Pelosi puts the Senate-passed infrastructure bill on the floor to be voted on first, ideally this month.
This group isn’t exactly wrong in their sentiment. They see this as a time to strike while the iron is hot and to deliver a bipartisan win now.
Pelosi says she is firm in not changing her plans. If that is the case, it is currently unclear if some in this group will rejoin Pelosi.
Why this can happen: the argument is over process, not policy
Unlike a lot of negotiations, there is a lot of leeway here. After all, the nine House Democratic moderates aren’t saying they don’t like any part of the bill, they are mad about when they are voting on it. The same is true for House progressives who have overall goals in mind for the reconciliation bill, but not a specific price tag.
It is easy to see how this could resolve itself. Pelosi can help just enough moderates change their position by having others shame them into not derailing a once-in-a-generation chance for Democrats to pass the biggest rewrite of the social safety net since the New Deal (and likely taking down Joe Biden’s biggest win of his presidency along with it). She could also cut some deal to reduce spending that allows the centrists to save face. When the Senate actually writes up the $3.5 billion reconciliation bill for real and votes on it this fall, most expect the price tag will get smaller anyway to appease Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
By the way, there is basically no reason why Pelosi should even listen to these moderates. Even if she changed the schedule of the votes, there are many more progressive lawmakers who would revolt, and many would not change their minds.
Where it all can go wrong
The real thing to watch in the coming months is whether there are amendments added to anything the Senate passes. There is a movement to either amend or scrap a last-minute addition to regulate and more effectively tax crypto-currency as a way to pay for the infrastructure bill. There is a bipartisan group in the House who wanted to amend that part out.
However, if that happens, then it could set off a wave of other amendments. And, more importantly, the amendments would then have to get voted on again in the Senate.