Happy Tuesday. If you felt confused by the ever-evolving infrastructure news over the weekend, you were not alone. While observing the cloture vote on Saturday, your Uphill reporters overheard Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer walking a group of Democrats through what the path going forward would be on the legislation. While explaining the next steps to the group, we overheard Schumer simply say, “We just don’t know.”
That sums up the last few days of infrastructure talks pretty well, actually. Let’s get to it.
Infrastructure Passes Senate Despite Fierce GOP Split
After a marathon legislative session, the Senate voted 69-30 to approve a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package on Tuesday. Leaving the floor after casting his vote, you might have expected GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy, one of the architects of the package, to have been riding high on its success.
Instead, Cassidy was upset—not with Democrats, who had voted unanimously in favor of the measure, but with members of his own party, the bulk of whom opposed the legislation.
“I think it’s telling that people who are objecting are having to make things up. At best, stretching, but at worst, totally making things up out of whole cloth, with just a tiny little nexus to what’s actually in the bill. So when folks have to put out mistruths in order to show that something is not true, it kind of further establishes that what you’re doing is good.”
Over the course of its monthslong negotiation, the infrastructure package represented a rare occurrence in modern politics—a bipartisan group of legislators coming together to find common-ground policies to address issues of universal concern. In recent weeks, however, the package has been caught up in a more familiar occurrence: As grist for the mill of the perpetual culture war.
Former president Donald Trump—who intended but never managed to pass a sweeping infrastructure bill during his own tenure—has called it a “disgrace” and a “terrible deal.” Figures in conservative media zeroed in on certain provisions of the bill, like the fact that a portion of the money allotted for broadband internet was set aside for communities with high populations of underserviced groups—such as recent immigrants, veterans, and ethnic minorities—as supposed evidence that the bill supported “critical race theory.” Sen. Josh Hawley picked up that baton over the weekend, calling it “a bill that is about the woke political agenda of the left.”
Cassidy had very little patience for any of this. “The obligation of the public official is to speak truth to the American people. Secondly, it’s to do something good for the American people. So here you have a bill that’s going to create hundreds of thousands, if not millions of jobs, directly and indirectly. It’s going to protect people from flooding—my state’s been so hit by flooding. Improve ports and waterways. It’s going to improve quality of life—taking broadband internet to folks who don’t have it now. And you’re trying to defeat a bill as good as that with a—what’s a polite way to say ‘a lie’? So, as you might guess, that’s disappointing on several levels.”
The infrastructure bill now goes to the House, where Republicans are falling more uniformly in line behind the anti-infrastructure position. That doesn’t mean there’s time to rest for the Senate, though: On Tuesday, Democrats immediately moved on to their promised “human infrastructure” package, which they plan to pass on a party-line vote via budget reconciliation.
Democrats released the text of that framework on Monday. At a quick glance, a few things stick out: A lot of dollar signs and a whole lot of zeroes.
What Democrats are voting on is a budget resolution, not an actual bill. That means what will be passed this week will not immediately become law. The next step in the reconciliation process will be up to the committees. The budget resolution offers a framework of the budget and a deadline for committees to come up with the details of the legislation that will then be voted on and presumably passed into law after the August recess. The committees’ deadline is Sept. 14.
In a letter to his colleagues on Monday, Schumer said the respective House and Senate committees will work together to draft legislation based off of the framework outlined in the budget resolution.
There are 11 committees that will be involved in the process. Those committees all get different chunks of money to work with on various projects. Senate Democrats sent a memo summarizing what committees will focus on in the framework. Here’s a quick breakdown of that memo:
The Finance Committee is allotted $1.8 trillion for expanding paid family and medical leave, expanding the Affordable Care Act, extending the Child Tax Credit, and many more projects.
The HELP Committee is allotted $726 billion for universal pre-K for three- and four-year-olds, free tuition for community college, and other education and health related issues.
The Banking Committee is allotted $332 billion that focus on “improving housing affordability and equity” by investing in programs that already exist within the federal government.
The Energy Committee is allotted $198 billion for clean energy projects, rebates to weatherize and electrify homes, climate research, and more.
The Judiciary Committee is allotted $107 billion, with the bulk of that going to immigration issues, including a pathway to citizenship for qualified immigrants and increased border security.
Also included in the package: money to upgrade Veteran Affairs facilities, investments in small businesses, and investments in Native American communities across the country.
The package would cost a grand total of $3.5 trillion, which Democrats say will be offset by raising taxes on corporations and those making more than $400,000 a year, health care savings, and long term economic growth. The Congressional Budget Office has not scored the package, however, so whether or not the offsets will actually cover the $3.5 trillion is still unknown.
The staggeringly high price tag of the package has some economists worried about what it will do to the overall economy. Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Dispatch the reconciliation package process is too big and is being rushed: “I have pretty serious objections to policies that are this ambitious in terms of scope and expense that are being rammed through without an appropriate amount of debate and discussion.”
Eight moderate Democrats sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier today raising concerns about the process going forward on infrastructure. They pointed to the size and lack of debate surrounding the reconciliation package, as well as the timing question of when Pelosi will bring it to the floor.
The letter calls for Pelosi to bring the bipartisan bill to the floor “as soon as the Senate completes its work” for a standalone vote. “This once-in-a-century investment deserves its own consideration, without regard to other legislation,” they added. Pelosi has said repeatedly she does not plan on bringing the bipartisan bill to the floor of the House until after the $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” is agreed upon and passed.
The moderates also expressed concern over the amount of money in the reconciliation package and how it will be paid for: “These specifics are crucial, particularly given the combined threat of rising inflation, national debt, and the trillions recently and appropriately allocated to the COVID-19 emergency.”
Suffice to say, it may be some weeks before lawmakers can confidently head home to their districts touting the billions (or likely trillions) of dollars in infrastructure projects. The House is scheduled to gavel back into session in mid-September.
Perhaps Sen. Tom Carper, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee and one of the architects of the infrastructure bill, put it best by quoting Winston Churchill on the floor of the Senate right before the bill passed: “Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Lawmakers Gear Up for Debt Ceiling Standoff
Amid all the spending in the Democrats’ proposed reconciliation bill, one thing is particularly notable for its absence: The proposed package includes no provisions to raise or suspend the debt ceiling. This omission signals that, for now at least, instead of trying to go-it alone on a debt ceiling hike, Democrats are gearing up for a high-stakes standoff with their colleagues across the aisle, with the nation’s credit in the balance.
So far, the Biden administration is supporting such an approach. In a statement, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that because Democrats cooperated with Republicans under the Trump administration to suspend the debt ceiling, Congress should take the same approach now: “In recent years Congress has addressed the debt limit through regular order, with broad bipartisan support. In fact, during the last administration, Democrats and Republicans came together to do their duty three times. Congress should do so again now by increasing or suspending the debt limit on a bipartisan basis.”
Resolving the debt ceiling through regular order essentially means taking it up as a standalone bill, such as a short-term extension, or including it in must-pass legislation like a government funding bill. This would require getting 60 votes. That may prove a heavy lift, given that Republicans have already made it clear that they want nothing to do with the debt ceiling process.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor last week that Democrats “won’t get our help with the debt limit increase … They control the White House, they control the House, they control the Senate. They can raise the debt ceiling and if it’s raised, they will do it.”
Rank-and-file Republicans seem to be on the same page: “My easy answer is no new debt ceiling increase,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming told The Dispatch. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, also said he would not support a new debt ceiling hike.
One legislative vehicle Democrats may seek to fold the debt ceiling into is a continuing resolution to fund the government. Currently, the government is set to run out of money on September 30.
The tactic Democrats are so far rejecting is raising the debt ceiling along party lines, something that a budget reconciliation would have made possible. Reconciliation only needs a simple majority vote to pass, and is therefore immune from a filibuster from the minority. However, because of the rules of the budget reconciliation process, lawmakers would have to raise, not merely suspend, the debt ceiling. By contrast, if the debt ceiling is dealt with under regular order, they can suspend it for another specific period of time. That’s what happened in 2019; the two-year suspension of the debt ceiling is the one that just expired.
Republicans were quick to point out that Democrats could still tweak the budget resolution later in the process to include a provision dealing with the debt ceiling. “They can amend the budget resolution at any time to enable themselves to pass a debt ceiling increase with a simple majority vote, so it’s not really a game of chicken,” Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, told The Dispatch. “They are the ones that are going on this massive, unprecedented, very irresponsible spending spree. They’re the ones creating the need for this mountain of new debt. They can deal with the debt ceiling limit.”
When we covered this in Uphill last week, experts pointed out that Republicans’ position is not unusual for the minority party.
“The minority party has no obligation to help the majority party here. That’s true no matter the jersey colors,” Ryan Ellis, president of the conservative Center for a Free Economy, told The Dispatch in an email. “Like minority leaders before him, McConnell will seek to use this fact as a leverage point. He will demand some concession or concessions in exchange for releasing 10 or more GOP votes. He would not be doing his job were he to do otherwise.”
Democrats counter that the debt ceiling will need to be raised whether they pass new spending in the weeks ahead or not, and since Republicans were involved in passing the legislation that got debt levels to this point, they should sign off on paying the bill.
“We need to do it and it needs to be bipartisan like it used to be,” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio told The Dispatch. “The biggest driver of this debt was the Trump tax cuts … Senator McConnell needs to step up and be responsible about it.”
Currently, the Treasury Department is deploying so-called “extraordinary measures” to make sure the United States keeps honoring its financial obligations. But as we previously noted, those measures are temporary: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has predicted that, as things stand now, the government’s coffers will run dry in October or November.
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