Bipartisan negotiations in the Senate will continue this week with a June 7 deadline to reach a deal on a massive infrastructure package proposed by President Biden. The negotiations, already precarious, now face increasing pressure from House Democrats who demand strong union and labor protections in whatever compromise emerges.
Senate Republicans kept negotiations alive last week with a new offer, which they said came much closer to what Biden proposed in his American Jobs Plan for built infrastructure such as roads, bridges, water systems and broadband expansion. The GOP package totaled $928 billion, roughly half of what Biden has agreed to accept as a compromise. Actually, it’s far less than that because only a quarter of the Republican plan represents new spending, contrasted to Biden’s modified offer of $1.7 trillion in new spending.
The GOP proposal assigns $500 billion for roads, $98 billion for public transit, $46 billion for passenger rail and $70 billion for water infrastructure. Additional funding would go for ports, waterways, airports and broadband connectivity. Its spending increase over existing baseline budgets is in the $250 billion range. On the same line items, Biden seeks a $785 billion spending increase.
In addition to disagreements over how much to spend, Republicans and Democrats aren’t on the same page of what to include in the package or how to pay for it. Despite the huge gap in proposals, the White House agreed to extend a Memorial Day deadline by a week to allow more time to reach agreement.
The most promising huddle in the Senate involves private talks between Senators Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and Mitt Romney, R-Utah. No details have been disclosed, though Romney commented the two sides are not as far apart as it appears. Biden will meet Wednesday at the White House with Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia’s other senator who is leading negotiations for her caucus.
However, the disagreement is very broad and very basic. Republicans object to Biden’s inclusion of human infrastructure – affordable housing, childcare facilities and eldercare support. One GOP senator referred to Biden’s nontraditional investments as “socialism camouflaged as infrastructure”.
Republicans also reject paying for infrastructure investments by increasing taxes on large corporations and wealthy individuals, as Biden seeks. They propose paying for some of the investment by repurposing previously appropriated pandemic financial relief funding, even though most of that relief funding has already been committed.
Delaware Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a close Biden ally, has foreshadowed the strategy if a bipartisan deal falters. The alternate plan, Coons says, would be to stuff infrastructure spending into a budget reconciliation measure that isn’t subject to a Senate filibuster. Democrats used the same budget device to pass without Republican votes in the American Rescue Plan earlier in Biden’s presidency. The Senate Parliamentarian has ruled more than one budget reconciliation measure is allowed in a single year. That strategy only works if all 50 Senate Democrats are on board, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote.
If a bipartisan compromise is reached on traditional infrastructure investment, budget reconciliation is the likely route Democrats would use to pass some or all of Biden’s proposed nontraditional infrastructure investments. The Senate Parliamentarian quietly ruled last week that Senate Democrats only have one more shot this year at a budget reconciliation measure, which could mean Democrats also might stick all or some of Biden’s $1.5 trillion American Families Plan and all or part of Biden’s $6 trillion budget proposal into one package.
The stakes in the negotiations are large. Biden wants to clear his major legislative initiatives by the end of summer to spur economic recovery – and to avoid getting ensnared in the beginning of the 2022 midterm election cycle. Republicans are trying to appear receptive to infrastructure investment without giving Biden a clear victory as they ramp up to recapture control of the House and Senate in the midterm election.
Biden wants an infrastructure investment package wrapped up by the end of summer as a key accomplishment to buoy efforts by Democrats to retain control of Congress in the 2022 midterm election. Republicans want to appear willing to negotiate on an infrastructure package, but they are leery of giving Biden an all-out victory as they seek to regain control of Congress.
Nothing better exemplifies the political charge in negotiations over infrastructure spending than broadband expansion. This investment has been hailed as a boon to rural America, to equal the playing field for businesses and individuals living outside urban cores. However, there is new twist to the issue. A report in The New York Times indicates there are 13.6 million urban households without an internet connection compared to 4.6 million rural households.
“We have to be careful not to fall into the old traps of aggressively solving one community’s problem – a community that is racially diverse but predominantly white – while relying on hope and market principles to solve for another community’s problem – a community that is also racially diverse but disproportionately composed of people of color and those earning lower incomes,” Joi Chaney, senior vice president for policy and advocacy at the National Urban League, told the House Appropriations Committee.
Biden’s compromise American Jobs Plan total of $1.7 trillion features a cut in broadband investment from $100 billion to $65 billion. The GOP counteroffer focuses most of the broadband investment on rural areas. Leading Democrats also have urged most of the investment center on rural expansion. Analysts for the Federal Communications Commission have estimated it could take $80 billion to expand access to most of rural America.
The federal government poured more than $47 billion into rural broadband expansion from 2009 to 2017. The Rural Utilities Services, the successor agency of the one that spearheaded rural electrification during the Great Depression, issued $3.5 billion in loans and grants to expand high-speed internet access to 7 million rural residents, 362,000 rural businesses and 30,000 schools, police departments and hospitals. After five years and deployment of 66,521 miles of fiber optic cable, there were only 334,830 subscribers.
Pew Research conducted a survey in 2019 that found half of the people without an internet connection said they couldn’t afford one.