A lifelong railroad aficionado, 74-year-old retiree Tony Benz has volunteered for nearly two decades helping passengers at the Amtrak station in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood, Mo.
He believes the federal government has a role in funding infrastructure, and outside the station last week, Benz listed reasons the government should subsidize train travel.
That, however, doesn’t mean he is comfortable with the scale of spending Democrats are now pursuing. President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion new infrastructure proposal not only includes $80 billion in rail investment, but also hundreds of billions more for such things as elderly care and green housing.
And to Benz — a self-identified Republican-leaning independent who voted for President Donald Trump — the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that Biden signed into law last month, delivering $1,400 stimulus checks to Benz and tens of millions of other Americans, was simply “overexorbitant.”
“They need to look at who these people are, who gets it and who shouldn’t get it, and refine it,” he said.
Biden and Democrats have touted the support of Republican voters and independents in forging ahead with sweeping new proposals that could transform the American economy and reverse a decades-long national aversion to increased domestic spending, and early polling shows some Republican approval of their efforts. That has encouraged top Democratic Party leaders to dare their GOP counterparts to stand in the way of policies they argue will rally the public.
But any window for cooperation appears to have already closed for Republicans in Congress — and it may be closing for GOP voters, as well. Interviews with dozens of voters in three swing congressional districts across the country revealed evidence that attacks on the spending push are beginning to take hold, and congressional Republicans said they are well positioned to capitalize on voter doubts and win their way back to power in 2022.
“They feel like America is dramatically changing right before their eyes — I hear it everywhere I go,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, which has been helping to drive GOP messaging against the Democratic plans. “They hear about a $4 trillion dollar spending deal, and it’s not going to go toward helping them but go toward ideologically transforming America, and I think largely the American people are very anxious about it.”
Banks said GOP lawmakers will be “emboldened” when they return from an Easter recess to oppose the Democratic plans, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday called Biden’s proposal — which is expected to be funded with a partial reversal of Trump’s 2017 tax cut — “the wrong prescription for America” that Republicans would fight “every step of the way.”
Democrats remain unfazed, arguing it is Republicans who are misreading where the public stands.
Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Republicans “are again putting themselves on the wrong side of voters who overwhelmingly want action and results on these issues.”
The drumbeat of GOP attacks — that Biden’s spending plans are too big, too unfocused, too ideological and too divisive — have been driven home by elected leaders and a conservative media infrastructure looking to find the next issue after Trump’s 2020 election loss and the loss of the Republican Senate majority.
Ahead of this month’s three-week recess, the National Republican Congressional Committee advised GOP lawmakers to describe the American Rescue Plan Act as a “socialist wish list” that will lead to “costly implications” for taxpayers.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., delivered a version of that critique to his southern Minnesota constituents during a telephone town hall last week, adding that lawmakers have “turned a blind eye to our nation’s debt for far too long.”
Those arguments are already on the tips of Republican tongues across the country — including voters like Ken Schemmer, 85, and his son Ken Schemmer II, 54, Trump voters who questioned the stimulus spending as they left a cafe just a few hundred yards from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif.
“It’s too much,” said the junior Schemmer, a pastor. “Cities are not going to lower our taxes because they got this money, and they are giving it to people who have been bad stewards of our money.”
In nearby Placentia, Calif. — also in the swing 39th congressional district that went from Democratic to Republican control last year — a group of seniors who attend the same church in Fullerton, Calif., sat outside a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor and raised their concerns.
“It’s got too much junk in it,” said Phyllis Pringle, 89, a retired elementary school principal. “It’s garbage. We are all in favor of helping people who are suffering but not in favor of the other pieces the Democrats want. And the amount of indebtedness is unconscionable.”
Back in Missouri, some of those who benefited from federal largesse during earlier stages of the pandemic said there was a limit to their support for government intervention.
The owner of a Mexican restaurant in Chesterfield, a St. Louis suburb of more than 45,000, Roseann Espino, 57, benefited from a Paycheck Protection Program loan earlier this year — a program created under the bipartisan Cares Act and renewed multiple times since. But she said she received no other government assistance and viewed the Democratic follow-up to Cares, the American Rescue Plan, as a waste.
“What do we need $1.9 trillion for? To buy more masks for people? I mean what are we doing?” she said, backing local GOP Rep. Ann Wagner’s decision to oppose the bill.
Like other conservative business owners interviewed last week, she believed the generous unemployment benefits had hurt the recovery by making labor scarce — workers were better off cashing more-generous unemployment checks than taking paying jobs. She said one of her suppliers delivered food recently because so many of its drivers had called out after receiving stimulus checks.
Barry Kraft, owner of Reclaim Renew, a custom furniture business in Kirkwood, also received a PPP loan, allowing him to keep eight employees on the payroll as sales slowed last year.
Kraft, who voted for Trump and Wagner, said his business flourished before the pandemic under Trump’s presidency, and he said he was staying afloat as he waited for the economy to return to a more normal footing. But he questioned whether the relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, would jump-start that process, offering a prominent Republican talking point — that only a small portion of the bill went to directly fight the pandemic. (In fact, the bulk of the spending, like in the Cares Act, went to economic relief programs.)
“I think it’s just like many other times when it’s a cover-up for wasteful spending by our government,” he said.
Kraft offered support for infrastructure spending, to a point: “That’s the one thing government is supposed to do, is take care of roads,” he said. “As long as it’s being used for that, I don’t have a problem with it.” (Biden’s plan earmarks less than 10 percent of the total $2 trillion for roads and bridges.)
Biden and Democrats have been careful to note that the costs of any federal spending spree would not fall on working-class — or even middle-class — voters. The coronavirus pandemic relief bill was almost entirely funded from borrowing, and Biden has pledged to finance his infrastructure plans from corporate tax hikes and higher levies on households earning $400,000 and up.
That has prompted some GOP contortions to frame the impact on working-class Americans — a growing element of the Republican voter base that many party leaders are hoping to further cultivate, even after Trump’s loss. While economists foresee some macroeconomic risks to fiscal stimulus, party leaders have tried to translate that into a cogent warning that “hyperinflation” is around the corner — even if statistics show inflation has so far been limited to discrete sectors of the economy.
“You’re paying more for a cup of coffee. You’re paying more at the gas pump. You’re paying more for your groceries,” Banks said. “That’s where this hurts. That’s where we’re going to see where the historical comparisons are less like FDR and LBJ and a lot more like Jimmy Carter.”
Even with Biden’s pledges, fears persist in conservative communities like Yorba Linda that it won’t only be the rich who will bear the costs of new government programs. And some are questioning who reaps the benefits, even as red- and blue-tinged communities stand to gain assistance from the bills.
While surrounding towns and cities found themselves plugging budget gaps with federal funds, the city of Yorba Linda — which made no service cuts during the pandemic, according to its mayor, Peggy Huang — passed through a previous round of aid funding directly to local small businesses in the form of $10,000 grants.
Huang, who serves in a nonpartisan office but identifies as a “pragmatic” Republican and ran for a House seat last year, said the city is awaiting guidance on how it can spend the roughly $12 million it is expecting from the American Rescue Plan, but she said she expects the city’s local officials to act prudently.
Huang said it’s not only fears of higher taxes that is generating anxiety about the infrastructure bill, it’s the policy implications that it could carry with it — including potential mandates for higher-density development, a hot-button issue in California where skyrocketing housing prices have collided with homeowner opposition to statewide zoning mandates.
Biden’s infrastructure proposal would plow $213 billion into creating “affordable and sustainable” homes, in part by targeting “exclusionary zoning laws” — shorthand for local laws that can prevent the construction of apartment buildings meant to alleviate housing shortages. Within days, Huang said, she was contacted by concerned residents fearful that the proposal would threaten Yorba Linda’s longtime character as a city of detached, single-family homes.
“For people of color, their dream is not to buy a space 200 feet above ground,” she said. “They want land … You don’t build generational wealth out of 2000 square feet in the air. You build it from land.”
In an area where the economy was hit much harder by the pandemic — coastal South Carolina, a tourist mecca full of restaurants and hospitality businesses — a more complicated view of government aid has emerged.
The Paycheck Protection Program and federal disaster loans kept hundreds of businesses afloat, but several entrepreneurs said the area was amid a several labor crunch — one that many attributed to the generous unemployment benefits that Congress has now extended through this summer.
“There is no hotel or restaurant in Charleston County not looking for people,” said Hank Holliday, who presided over a hospitality empire until selling most of his Charleston holdings in December. “Chefs, owners and managers can’t even get people to show up for interviews. They’ll respond to a want ad, but then don’t even show up. Why? They want to put on their unemployment application that they tried to get a job at Peninsula Grill. I’ve seen signs in windows downtown: ‘Due to stimulus checks and bonus unemployment, we are understaffed. Please bear with us if service is slow.’ “
But some business owners said the bill could be a great help, thanks to the inclusion of nearly $29 billion in dedicated aid for restaurants, the result of months of bipartisan lobbying from key industry players.
“We employ hundreds of thousands of people. We’re a massive, multibillion dollar industry,” said Chad Biel, the GOP-leaning owner of Bohemian Bull, a restaurant on nearby James Island, S.C. “Unfortunately a lot of restaurants really need it, because governments aren’t allowing them to do anything.”
Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., the area’s freshman representative, did not mention the restaurant aid in a statement explaining her vote against the ARP, which calls the bill a “Christmas list of wasteful schemes radical liberals pushed for long before the pandemic.”
The prospect of a major infrastructure bill, meanwhile, is both enticing and alarming to South Carolina Lowcountry conservatives — who see significant needs in the region but fear taxpayer money could be squandered on unneeded projects.
Dickie Schweers, a longtime Charleston County councilman, said he believed the region needed funding to bring its current infrastructure up to date rather than to pursue new projects. And he said he welcomed his fellow Republicans raising concerns about Biden’s big ambitions.
“But I do say: Where was that opposition when Trump was pushing stimulus?” he asked. “It concerns me we’re principled when our party’s not in office … It’s only pork if it’s another person’s pork. That really is the way it works.”
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The Washington Post’s William Dauber in Yorba Linda, Calif., and Marianna Sotomayor in Washington contributed to this report. Berger reported from Kirkwood, Mo.; Dixon reported from Charleston, S.C.