Why Biden got tripped up on his own infrastructure deal

President Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Before he launched his presidential campaign, Joe Biden was known as a one-man gaffe machine. But verbal flubs didn't become a significant problem during the campaign, and they haven't been an issue since Biden became president — at least until last Thursday. That's when he seemed to threaten to veto the very infrastructure bill he'd just negotiated with a bipartisan group of moderates in the Senate.

By Saturday, he'd walked it back, claiming he'd never intended to imply a veto. Fine — but there's a reason why Biden ended up stepping into this mess: Because the incentives surrounding the infrastructure package are incoherent, necessitating either a veto from the president or the collapse of the process in Congress. Unless one of the factions — moderate senators, progressive Democrats in the House, or the administration — does something highly unlikely and changes its position, we will end up with nothing at all.

Biden and the bipartisan group of senators spoke to the press last Thursday because they were proud of the deal they'd reached, agreeing in principle to move forward on a bill spending nearly $600 billion to fund a wide range of physical infrastructure projects like highways, bridges, and tunnels. But progressive Democrats in the House are far more intent on passing a much bigger bill that Republicans uniformly oppose — one focused on "human infrastructure," including elder and child care, paid family leave, and efforts to curb climate change, along with tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations.

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Both of these bills were contained in the administration's original infrastructure proposal. The whole point of dividing that proposal into two bills was to get moderates to support a smaller bill that needs to clear a 60-vote threshold in the Senate while allowing the rest of Biden's original bill to pass without Republican support using the reconciliation process that only requires a party-line vote of 51. But now congressional Democrats are threatening to oppose the smaller bill if the bigger one doesn't also pass. In seeming to promise a veto of the first bill, Biden was merely trying to show he's going along with the demand of his party's progressive wing that the two bills get signed into law or go down to defeat together.

But that puts the party's progressives in the role of hostage takers, with Biden seeming to act as their enablers. Why would the Senate moderates (especially the Republicans among them) vote for a bill that is the necessary condition for the passage of another bill they don't want? That makes precisely as much sense as Biden threatening to veto the bill he just negotiated, which makes no sense at all.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.