WASHINGTON – While earlier rounds of infrastructure negotiations between President Joe Biden and Republicans fizzled out without the two sides getting close to an agreement, it’s starting to look like a bill with bipartisan support could emerge from the Senate – the surest sign yet that Biden could be on his way to signing a bill into law without using the reconciliation process to pass a Democrats-only bill, or going even further and changing the Senate’s filibuster rules.
That’s because a bipartisan group of senators – crucially including 11 Republicans – now say they support the general framework of a potential deal. And the announcement comes as Democrats have started to get impatient about making a deal, saying they’ll push ahead with a reconciliation bill in the next few weeks if a bipartisan agreement can’t be struck.
Sure, there are a lot of caveats there. A framework for a potential deal isn’t the same as a bill being written – never mind actually passing in the Senate, or the House, or being signed into law by Biden. And there are plenty of offramps for senators on either side to ultimately decide not to vote for whatever bill comes out of these negotiations.
But it’s a major breakthrough. Getting 11 Republicans on board could be enough to pass a bill in the Senate through regular order.
Joining 10 Democrats in saying they support the group’s framework for a bill are GOP Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Todd Young of Indiana.
If those 11 Republicans are willing to vote for a bill, and at least 49 of the chamber’s 50 Democrats agree, the bill could reach the 60-vote threshold required to advance most legislation in the Senate.
It’s far from a guarantee. The framework the bipartisan group has agreed to is less than half the size of Biden’s original $2 trillion proposal, and cuts out some key Democratic priorities, particularly funding to combat climate change. And some Democrats say they won’t agree to a deal that cuts out those priorities.
And even if the current package passes in the Senate, it isn’t guaranteed to pass in the House, where more-liberal Democrats have already accused their Senate colleagues of “playing patty-cake” with Republicans.
“Dems are burning precious time & impact negotiating w/GOP who won’t even vote for a Jan 6 commission,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. “McConnell’s plan is to run out the clock. It’s a hustle. We need to move now.”
Ocasio-Cortez said on MSNBC on Thursday that she’s concerned about “corporate interests” having too much influence on the Senate negotiations, and said that means underserved communities often get left out of bipartisan legislation.
And liberals in the party could derail a bill. Democrats have a slim 220-211 majority at the moment, meaning just a handful of defections (or even “present” votes, when a member chooses not to vote up or down on a bill) could halt its passage. A group of those liberals sent party leaders a warning when three voted against a bill that would have given Capitol Police $1.9 billion to improve security at the complex, and three more voted “present,” allowing the bill to pass by just a single vote, 213-212.
But skeptical Democrats could still find a way to pass the measures Republicans won’t agree to. Democrats have a lot of ambitious agenda items they promised voters in November, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has said Democrats will still try to pass a reconciliation bill to fund some of the measures Republicans have objected to in the current infrastructure negotiations.
Those measures, which include funding to combat climate change, for universal child care and for a huge expansion of Medicare, would amount to trillions of dollars in additional spending.
The bipartisan infrastructure proposal hasn’t been released publicly, and Biden has been overseas on his first international trip as president. Only when an actual agreement is released, and Biden has a chance to weigh in, will we get a clearer view of its chances of being signed into law.
Biden has openly been signaling his desire to make a deal since the very beginning of this process, and in some ways the strategy might simply be taking what he can get in a bipartisan deal. Biden can credibly argue that he got concessions out of Republicans by bringing them to the table – this potential deal would represent a much bigger package than that offered by a group of GOP senators led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., with whom Biden abandoned negotiations this month. It would be a win for bipartisanship and for Biden’s campaign trail promises to engage in good faith with Republicans.
And if Biden signs off on the deal, that could sway liberals who have reservations, both in the House and Senate.
For the first time, a critical mass of Republicans is, in principle, on board with a concrete framework for an infrastructure deal. And that’s a big win for Senate moderates pushing for a return to regular order, instead of more partisan bills.