Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle


Centrists have gained leverage in the Senate battle over an infrastructure package after 11 more senators backed a $974 billion infrastructure framework.

Twenty-one senators in all are supporting the proposal, which is much smaller than what the White House and liberals prefer. The group includes 11 Republicans, nine Democrats and an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

Liberals who were calling on fellow Democrats to “cut bait” only a few days ago now grudgingly acknowledge they will have to review the details of what the centrists will come up with before deciding their next move.

And centrist Democrats are touting the support of their 11 Republican colleagues for the five-year spending plan, arguing it is a strong indication that it can pick up 60 votes and pass the Senate outside the budget reconciliation process, which would avoid a filibuster but force all of the Senate’s 50 Democrats to stay together.

“There’s a lot of momentum,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who helped craft the framework.

“In terms of Republican supporters, I think we’re way north of the 11 who are public and there are many more.”

The prospect that a significant bipartisan accomplishment could be within President Biden’s grasp will make it tougher for progressive Democrats to persuade the White House and their congressional leadership to cut off talks with Republicans.

Only a few days ago, they could make a pretty strong argument that the talks were a waste of time and that Republicans were stringing their colleagues along.

The deal still faces a number of obstacles, however.

Warner acknowledged there are still major differences between centrist and liberal Democrats over the size of a reconciliation package that progressives want to pass in conjunction with a smaller bipartisan infrastructure spending.

But it’s clear the endorsement by 11 more senators of the centrists’ package has given the group new leverage. Negotiators say they hope to have a package with more details ready by Monday.

“Once we have that package we can send it out to both Democrats and Republicans to see if we can get their support and hopefully we can get a big vote on both sides,” Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), one of the nine Democrats backing the package, said on MSNBC Thursday.

Besides Warner and Tester, the other Democrats in the group are Sens. Chris Coons (Del.), Maggie Hassan (N.H.), John Hickenlooper (Colo.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Independent Sen. Angus King (Maine), who caucuses with Democrats.

The GOP senators are Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rob Portman (Ohio), Mitt Romney (Utah), Mike Rounds (S.D.) Thom Tillis (N.C.) and Todd Young (Ind.).

The scaled-down bipartisan package would leave out many of Biden’s more ambitious priorities, such as $400 billion for long-term home health care.

And it is much smaller that what progressives want to do.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a meeting Wednesday with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats floated advancing a $6 trillion reconciliation proposal. The size and scope of a reconciliation bill is widely expected to be negotiated down, but it suggests the differences within the Democratic caucus.

Progressives have called on Manchin and other moderates to promise to support a reconciliation package before they agree to vote for a scaled-down bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Several are frustrated that the bipartisan package won’t raise taxes at all on corporations or high net-worth individuals, who have seen their wealth grow dramatically since the 2008-2009 recession.

“We’ll see. I think the key to keep our eye is to forget pay-fors as a concept and think more about an honest tax system that isn’t corrupted by big special interests and that is a positive and not just something that pays for something else,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has warned that he and other progressives will hold back support on a bipartisan infrastructure package if there isn’t a guarantee to pass ambitious climate-related proposals as well.

There are still questions about whether the ways to pay for the proposal assembled by the group would actually cover the cost of the plan, and whether Biden would accept controversial proposals to index the gas tax to inflation and repurpose up to $120 billion in unspent pandemic relief funding.

Some Democrats argue the cost of infrastructure spending doesn’t need to be offset because it will pay for itself over the long term by promoting economic activity.

“I just don’t understand why there’s such a fascination with paying for infrastructure,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I think you should be much more focused on paying for ongoing annual programing but infrastructure is the one thing you should be completely willing to finance, especially at these low rates.”

The White House has raised concerns about pegging the gas tax to inflation and placing an annual surcharge on electric vehicles.

Senators and outside groups are also raising questions about whether the proposed ways to pay for the plan would actually cover the cost of the bipartisan package, something that GOP senators say is a prerequisite for their support.

In particular, it’s not yet known how the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) will score infrastructure financing authority to leverage private investment, direct-pay municipal bonds for infrastructure investment or pouring more money into the Internal Revenue Service to beef up tax compliance.

Asked about how much municipal bond fees would do to offset the cost, Warner said “we’re still trying to scrub that down.”

“There are still a couple of areas that we’re still scrubbing the numbers on,” he said, expressing hope that more detail will be known by Monday.

He also said negotiators are still trying to figure out how the CBO will assess the infrastructure financing authority as a payment method.

Democratic and Republican senators both caution there’s still a lot of work to be done on figuring out how to pay for the package.

Tester on Thursday said he doesn’t support one of its core components, a proposal to index the gas tax to inflation.

“I certainly don’t support the gas tax and it would have an impact on my support for the bill. So hopefully we can remove that gas tax and get another pay-for for that,” Tester told MSNBC Thursday. “The gas tax I think could be a real — I don’t want to say deal killer — but it could really have some negative effects on who supports it and who doesn’t.” 

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