When his $1 trillion infrastructure bill cleared the Senate with 19 Republican votes this week, President Biden achieved something the past two Democratic presidents never could: getting sizable bipartisan support for his top legislative priority. The bill now heads to the House.
Why did Biden succeed where Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did not? Today, I’ll explain the four biggest reasons, and what comes next, with help from my colleagues in Washington.
1. A less polarized issue
Congressional Republicans have almost uniformly opposed the top agenda items of Democratic presidents for three decades. Zero supported Clinton’s 1993 tax bill. Just three voted to pass Obama’s stimulus bill; zero did so for the Affordable Care Act, despite Democrats spending much of 2009 negotiating with them. And zero backed Biden’s pandemic relief bill, which passed in March.
But Biden’s focus on infrastructure gave lawmakers a less ideologically freighted — and less politically divisive — target than taxes or health care, says Emily Cochrane, who covers Congress. In a polarized era, she says, “it is objectively easier to agree on spending for roads and bridges than pretty much any other policy issue.”
2. Presidential know-how
Biden campaigned on having the experience to forge bipartisan consensus, and his 36-year tenure as a senator seems to have helped the bill pass.
“It appears to have taught him the importance of putting in hard work — phone calls to senators, invitations to the Oval Office — necessary to get the deal over the line,” said Jim Tankersley, who covers the White House for The Times.
Biden’s approach was not without error. His suggestion in June that he would not sign a bipartisan bill into law unless Congress also passed a second, larger spending bill nearly tanked the deal. But his efforts to smooth things over — including speaking directly with key negotiators and dispatching his staff to offer reassurances — helped salvage it.
Biden also made significant concessions to win Republican votes. The Senate bill amounts to about $1 trillion less than what the White House had initially proposed, including reduced funding for electric vehicles, public transit and water infrastructure.
3. A centrist effort
A group of moderate Democrats and Republicans helmed the negotiations that produced the Senate bill. Both sides had reasons to want a deal.
The Democrats — notably Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — made working across the aisle a goal. Their “unwillingness to completely cut out their Republican colleagues” helped to sustain the talks, Emily says. At the same time, Jim notes, they never ruled out supporting a Democrat-only bill “if Republicans refused to play ball, which helped keep both sides at the table.”
On the Republican side, Rob Portman of Ohio is retiring; working with Democrats gave him and his colleagues “the opportunity to help shape the spending pots they support and secure sort of a legacy moment,” Emily said. Others, like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, saw cooperation as “part of their legislative brand and an opportunity to prove bipartisanship was possible.”
4. McConnell’s calculus
In 2010, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky bluntly described Republicans’ political strategy: Deny Obama’s agenda bipartisan support. In May, McConnell said “100 percent of my focus is on stopping” the Biden administration. On Tuesday, he voted for Biden’s infrastructure bill.
What changed? McConnell may have decided that getting credit for helping to pass a popular bill would boost Republicans’ chances of retaking Congress during next year’s midterm elections. “There are very real infrastructure needs across the country that he and his conference can say they’ve addressed,” Emily said.
McConnell may also have wanted to give centrist Democrats ammunition to keep defending the filibuster — the 60-vote threshold that lets Senate Republicans block other Democratic priorities — from progressives agitating to change it. Manchin and Sinema have cited infrastructure as proof that the Senate can pass important bills with the filibuster intact. (Jamelle Bouie, a Times Opinion columnist, has made the counter case.)
Will the bill’s passage revive bipartisan cooperation on other big issues? Probably not, Emily says. “Other attempts at bipartisanship this Congress — on voting rights, gun control and a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol attack — have so far all failed,” she said. “This is the exception.”
The House has to pass the infrastructure bill before Biden can sign it into law. But Democrats are also trying to pass a second, larger spending plan to fill out Biden’s economic agenda. On a party-line vote yesterday, the Senate approved a $3.5 trillion blueprint for that plan, which would fund climate and social policies.
Democrats have narrow majorities in Congress, and passing both bills won’t be easy. Some House progressives have conditioned their support for the bipartisan bill on the Senate first passing the larger spending plan. Some House moderates want a quick vote on the bipartisan bill. And Manchin and Sinema have reservations about the spending plan’s price tag.
Democrats “cleared a big step” this week, Emily said. But “there are so, so, so many more hurdles.”
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These pages have surged during the pandemic as young people have turned to Instagram to seek connection, one social media expert said: “They’re very representative of teenagers having to spend the last year solely communicating through the internet.” — Claire Moses, a Morning writer
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
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Now Time to Play
The pangrams from yesterday’s Spelling Bee were dilation and additional. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: ___ approval (three letters).
If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.
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Here’s today’s print front page.
“The Daily” is about the infrastructure bill. “Sway” features Patrick Soon-Shiong, the owner of The Los Angeles Times.
Claire Moses, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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