The bipartisan infrastructure push, part two: This is definitely not the way things are supposed to work

Call it a no-compromise compromise:  Democrats use the Republicans to provide their stamp of approval on a portion of their wishlist, then violate the longstanding democratic norms they claim to care so much about by going it alone on the rest.  Even more incredibly, President Biden made this announcement on the very same day he bragged about forging a compromise in the first place.

Last Thursday, President Joe Biden announced what should have been good news for the country:  Despite our polarized political environment, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate had reached an agreement on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, a goal sought by both previous administrations.  President Biden himself took a well deserved victory lap when making the announcement, crowing about the importance of compromise and his role in it.  “When we can find common ground, working across party lines, that is what I will seek to do,” he said, describing the bill as “a true bipartisan effort, breaking the ice that too often has kept us frozen in place.”  The president added that “neither side got everything they wanted in this deal; that’s what it means to compromise” and that “This reminds me of the days when we used to get an awful lot done up in the United States Congress.”

Unfortunately for all involved, Biden then went on to demand a separate bill that would address the items Republicans wouldn’t agree to, meaning Democrats would get everything they wanted anyway, and it would be rammed through under the reconciliation process.  “I expect that in the coming months this summer, before the fiscal year is over, that we will have voted on this bill, the infrastructure bill, as well as voted on the budget resolution. But if only one comes to me, this is the only one that comes to me, I’m not signing it.”

Call it a no-compromise compromise:  They use the Republicans to provide their stamp of approval on a portion of their wishlist, then violate the longstanding democratic norms they claim to care so much about by going it alone on the rest.  The plan is to split the original proposal, the one that includes hundreds of billions of dollars for non-infrastructure related items and massive tax increases, into two bills.  The compromise bill would be voted on through the usual filibuster process requiring 60 votes and the portions they couldn’t get through this normal process would be dressed up as a budget bill and passed with a mere 50 votes plus Vice President Kamala Harris.

Incredibly, President Biden made this announcement the very same day, barely two hours later, saying that the two bills would pass “in tandem,” even threatening that he would not sign the bipartisan bill unless the partisan one was also on his desk at the same time.  As Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi put it, “There ain’t going to be a bipartisan bill without a reconciliation bill.”  Needless to say, Republicans were not pleased with these “all the marbles” antics and threats.  

Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, believes the Democrats acted in bad faith, claiming that no one was aware of the “in tandem” plan during the negotiations.  “If he’s gonna tie them together, he can forget it!” he said. “I’m not doing that. That’s extortion! I’m not going to do that. The Dems are being told you can’t get your bipartisan work product passed unless you sign on to what the left wants, and I’m not playing that game.”  “Most Republicans could not have known that,” he added. “There’s no way. You look like a fucking idiot now.  I don’t mind bipartisanship, but I’m not going to do a suicide mission.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wasn’t pleased either, taking to the floor of the Senate to bemoan a “tale of two press conferences” and saying any optimism was “short-lived.”  “Less than two hours after publicly commending our colleagues and actually endorsing the bipartisan agreement, the president took the extraordinary step of threatening to veto it. It was a tale of two press conferences,” Senator McConnell said.  “It almost makes your head spin.  An expression of bipartisanship and then an ultimatum on behalf of your left-wing base.” Similarly, a GOP aide told Politico, “The president’s comments did real damage here.  It is astonishing that he could endorse this bipartisan framework in one breath and then announce he will hold it hostage in the next.”

The fall out from this fiasco was so severe that President Biden felt the need to clarify his position over the weekend.  Unfortunately, the clarification might be more confusing than the initial press conference.  “At a press conference after announcing the bipartisan agreement, I indicated that I would refuse to sign the infrastructure bill if it was sent to me without my Families Plan and other priorities, including clean energy,” he said in a statement released by the White House Saturday afternoon.  “My comments also created the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to, which was certainly not my intent.”  

That might seem clear on the surface, but it still begs the question:  Is there definitely another bill outside of the normal process and, if so, what’s the point of the compromise at all?

The progressive wing of the Democrat Party appears insistent on this second bill which, at the risk of repeating myself, completely negates the importance and point of any compromise.  “Let me be clear: There will not be a bipartisan infrastructure deal without a reconciliation bill that substantially improves the lives of working families and combats the existential threat of climate change,” progressive Senator and self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders wrote in a tweet on Sunday afternoon. “No reconciliation bill, no deal. We need transformative change NOW.”

Amazingly, at least a few Republican Senators appear to be mollified after Biden’s retraction this weekend.  Utah Senator Mitt Romney said he trusted Biden and would support the compromise bill, adding “I am totally confident the President will sign it if it comes to his desk.”  Ohio’s retiring Senator, Rob Portman, is also on board.  “I am glad they have now been delinked and we can move forward with a bipartisan bill.  We were glad to see them disconnected. And now we can move forward.”  Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy was a little more lukewarm.  I hope it’s enough.  We’ll see going forward,” he said on NBC, “but I’ll continue to work for the bill.”

Conservative pundits remain mystified at what is going on.  The question no one can answer:  What is the value of a compromise when the other party goes it alone anyway?  For example, Charles C.W. Cooke writes, “The deal that Chad Pergram is reporting fixes this issue for the Democrats, in that it allows them to recruit the 60 bipartisan votes for the Manchin-friendly infrastructure package and to turn around once that’s done and get everything else they want at a simple 50-vote threshold. If Schumer is telling the truth when he says that the Senate will do both bills — and again, one can never be sure — Republicans have decided to give up all their negotiating power and, in effect, to permit the spending of trillions of dollars (the Democrats want six trillion!) that they oppose.”

Even CNN’s resident propagandist, Stephen Collinson, admits this is all a game of smoke and mirrors.  “There is, of course, some classic Washington smoke and mirrors here. ‘I’m not just signing the bipartisan bill and forgetting about the rest’ is what Biden had said Thursday. But despite his efforts to walk that back, everyone understands the President will seek to pass a second bill — the White House has mentioned a figure of $4 trillion — containing much of the ‘human infrastructure’ social spending taken out of the narrower deal to appease Republicans.  But the illusion that they are not linked is necessary to politically shield Republican senators who stuck out their necks as Biden pursues a bipartisan deal that is critical to honoring a central thematic thrust of his administration — bringing the country together and not treating opponents like enemies. The President almost inadvertently deprived his GOP partners of the deniability they need.”

This makes little sense even for CNN:  Biden is honoring a central thematic thrust by ramming through a bill on a party line vote and all that is needed is come cover for Republicans?  Mr. Collinson is correct that everyone knows there will be a second bill, and the only question is how large and expansive.  Progressives want $6 trillion, but more moderate members such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizon’s Kyrsten Sinema have indicated they will not support anything nearly that large.  This brings us back to the original question:  What’s the point of all this political theater when Democrats have made it exceedingly clear they are in charge and will do what they want?  Perhaps more specifically, why are Republicans going along at all under these conditions, is there some six-dimensional chess move at work?

It’s a difficult question to answer, but my take is pretty straightforward:  Republicans want to bring home both a win and an I-told-you-so wrapped into one.  By negotiating with Democrats and passing compromise legislation, they get to say they tried and had limited success working in the bipartisan manner most Americans claim to want, but they can also claim that Democrats can’t be trusted, literally in the same breath.  It’s always difficult to say how these situations play out in the long run, but there appears to be a near-mythical middle in America that wants compromise and doesn’t like bad faith.  This seems to be a play for those voters, but who knows?

The GOP could well be getting rolled and simply trying to save face.  At this point, nothing would surprise me:  However the media tries to spin this, there’s nothing normal about the entire situation, from the suddenly and miraculously new ways reconciliation can be used to negotiating while reconciling at the same time, to Biden saying the hidden part out loud at a bizarre press conference.  Ultimately, it makes about as much sense as the President’s strange whispering to reporters, something that needs to be seen to be believed, and his comments the day before that you need jet planes and nukes to stand up to tyranny in the United States.

Either way, Biden promised a return to normalcy, but this certainly isn’t it.


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