President Biden's infrastructure package is bogged down in fake negotiations with Republicans. After weeks of haggling with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) and five other GOP senators, the talks are reportedly on the verge of collapse. But if you were worried about something getting passed, fear not! Another group of GOP senators are reportedly preparing another fake deal to take its place and waste more time.
As Eric Levitz argues at New York, this entire effort is pointless. Bipartisanship has ceased to be. Worse, every moment of delay raises the risk of neurotic Democratic members of Congress derailing the process with frivolous or corrupt objections, or the party losing its Senate majority outright from an untimely death. This dithering could ruin Biden's presidency.
The total lack of good faith even among so-called Republican moderates can be seen in the White House's negotiations with the Capito group. Biden (who has long boasted of his ability to cut deals with the other side, and is plainly eager to get some stamp of bipartisanship) lopped off $500 billion in his latest proposal, taking it down to $1.7 trillion. The Republicans, who have been demanding the middle and working class shoulder the cost with user fees instead of tax increases on the rich, responded by reportedly upping their bid by just $50 billion — that is, one tenth as much. Biden has already categorically ruled out the user fees idea, erasing any possibility of agreement. (Besides, there aren't even enough senators in the Capito group to overcome a certain filibuster.)
At time of writing, Biden has set a deadline of Memorial Day on negotiations, and Republican senators are reportedly scrambling to put together a $1 trillion plan that would supposedly be paid for with unallocated pandemic relief money. There may actually be that much money that hasn't been spent yet, but redirecting it would require defunding previous Democratic priorities.
Let's be real: Republicans obviously don't want Biden to pass anything. They want to string him along with fake promises of bipartisanship, running out the clock on the Democratic majority, until they get a chance at taking control of Congress in the 2022 midterms. If that happens, they will try to strangle the economy by demanding massive austerity every time the government needs to pass a budget or raise the debt limit — trying to create a recession that Biden will be blamed for, so that the Republican nominee (probably Donald Trump) will be elected in 2024.
This is exactly what Republicans like Sen. Chuck Grassley did the last time Democrats controlled Congress and the presidency — promise an illusory bipartisan compromise to make proposals worse and eat up time, then vote against them anyways. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell openly proclaimed his priority of winning above all else in 2010, and he's saying the same thing now. "One-hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration," he said in early May.
Even more ominously, the Democratic conservative wing is finding more and more complaints about the tax hikes in the infrastructure bill. Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) doesn't like the corporate tax hike. Reps. Cindy Axne (Iowa) and Ritchie Neal (Mass.) don't like the inheritance tax increase on the ultra-rich. Sens. Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Mark Warner (Va.) don't like the capital gains hike. A whole bunch of others want to cut taxes on the rich by repealing the cap on the deduction of state and local taxes.
This mobilization to keep down taxes on the rich is of course baldly corrupt, but it's also characteristic of the Democratic personality. As a rule, the deciding votes in the party caucus are anxious, fussy, and above all terrified of doing anything. Their primary objective is to avoid blame, not accomplish things. Hiding in a closet while Republicans plot to gerrymander you out of power is a good way to lose, but at least you can generally avoid negative media attention and say "it wasn't my fault," even if it's not true.
It follows that speed and urgency are vital for breaking through this mewling timidity. As we saw during the pandemic rescue package passage, a crisis atmosphere is basically the only thing that can get big policy through Congress. Every minute burned up in fake negotiations with Republicans means more time for the coward caucus to invent reasons to sit on their hands and do nothing.
The other huge time risk here is the minuscule size of the Democratic Senate majority. Democrats have just 50 senators, so their control of the chamber relies on Vice President Harris' tie-breaking vote. There are 11 Democratic senators in states where, should they pass away or resign, a Republican governor would appoint a replacement to serve out their term: Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Jon Tester of Montana, Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Krysten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona. (In the latter two states, the governor is required to appoint someone from the same party, but someone could probably be found who would just switch parties afterwards.)
Three in this group are over 70 — one unlucky illness, and there goes the Democrats' ability to pass anything. This also happened the last time Democrats controlled the government, when Massachusetts' Sen. Ted Kennedy died and his anointed successor, Martha Coakley, whiffed the ensuing special election, losing Democrats' a filibuster-proof majority in the process.
Even the most conservative Democratic members of Congress agree on the need to do something on infrastructure. The question is whether they can muster the pattern recognition skills of a dim golden retriever and match the 2009-10 history to today. They can either figure out internally (and quickly) what they want to do and pass that on a party-line vote, or they can do nothing and effectively collaborate with the Republican plot to topple Biden and set up one-party rule. Those are the only options.