Without A Deadline, Biden Infrastructure Bill More Vulnerable To GOP Attacks

Democrats rushed to pass the American Rescue Plan last month before federal unemployment benefits began to expire on March 14. 

With no similar deadline for their next bill, the American Jobs Plan, Democrats face months of negotiations with political infighting and more chances for Republicans to distract from popular provisions like road repairs and internet upgrades.

The White House has said it hopes to see President Joe Biden’s second big agenda item, a several-trillion-dollar infrastructure and jobs plan, to pass through Congress by the summer, but they’re also acknowledging there’s less urgency this time around.

“The American Rescue Plan was an emergency package,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a briefing last week. “We’ve got a little bit more time here to work and have discussions with members of both parties.” 

Psaki added on Tuesday that the White House wants to see “progress by May” and a bill drafted by the summer.

But already there are signs this will be a more difficult political lift than the COVID-19 relief bill, which included direct payments to the vast majority of U.S. households. This next bill has no checks, and Democratic senators have begun to complain about core elements of Biden’s proposal. Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), for instance, said he thought the proposed 28% corporate tax rate was too high. Sen. Mark Warner (Va.) also indicated he’s raised some concerns about the proposal with the White House already.

Democrats are still operating on razor-thin margins in both the House and Senate, and any single Democrat making demands can block momentum. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks with reporters in the Senate subway as he arrives for a vote in the Capitol on Wednesday, M

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks with reporters in the Senate subway as he arrives for a vote in the Capitol on Wednesday, March 24.

As Republicans learned the hard way when they attempted and failed to repeal Obamacare in 2017, dragging out negotiations can be politically damaging. Four years ago, months of political infighting around the GOP health care bill gave health care advocates and Democrats more time to educate the public about the proposal, tanking its popularity and making the exercise politically toxic. Republicans will have more time to strategize an opposition campaign against this legislation in ways they were unable to against the popular coronavirus relief bill that passed solely with Democratic votes last month. 

“Given that it’s a longer time frame for passage of a bill and it doesn’t contain the two magic words of ‘COVID relief’ that provides Republicans the opportunity to define the bill on their terms, educate the public on what’s in it that doesn’t have anything to do with infrastructure, and ultimately, their hope is to turn tide against the bill in a way they weren’t able to do with the COVID bill,” said Doug Heye, a Republican communications strategist and former Hill staffer.

Republicans are already complaining that Biden’s plan spends money on things that haven’t traditionally been considered infrastructure, such as home and elder care. But the playbook is the same one they used against COVID-19 relief — one that failed to resonate with the public.

The unemployment deadline Democrats faced as they worked on the American Rescue Plan had been set up by the previous relief bill, passed in December. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate majority leader at the time, had tried to make it so there would be less of an abrupt cutoff when millions of people would lose benefits if Congress failed to act. The December bill only disallowed new claims after March 14, while allowing federal benefits to continue until early April ― but Democrats simply took the earlier date as an urgent deadline.

The American Rescue Plan set up a September expiration of federal unemployment programs, which include a $300 weekly supplement plus benefits for gig workers who are normally ineligible. If Democrats want to keep those programs going, they would likely need to do so before the August recess. The White House omitted an extension from its initial outline of the infrastructure bill. 

By September, the national unemployment rate will likely have fallen substantially, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is preparing to unveil a major reform to the state-federal unemployment insurance system, with a key goal of making the system responsive enough that Congress doesn’t have to stack on additional benefits every time there’s a recession. 

Democrats in the House are taking the lead in drafting Biden’s infrastructure and jobs proposal. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters last week her goal was to pass Biden’s infrastructure bill as early as July 4. Doing so could be a challenge given demands from a group of moderates in the chamber who are calling for the repeal of a limit on deductions for state and local taxes, a feature of the tax law Republicans passed in 2017. Currently, Pelosi can only lose three Democrats in order to pass legislation without GOP support.

Shaping the bill in the Senate could prove even tougher. Already, centrist Democrats are demanding changes to the way Biden’s plan is financed, including its tax hike on corporations.

“If I don’t vote to get on it, it’s not going anywhere,” Manchin said in an interview on Monday. “So we’re going to have some leverage here ― it’s more than just me. There are six or seven other Democrats who feel very strongly about this.”

The ideas in Biden’s plan, like replacing lead pipes and extending high-speed internet to all Americans; a government overhaul of roads, bridges and waterways; and taxing corporations to pay for it all, are all overwhelmingly popular. But support for those ideas declines when the ideas are attached to any single party, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found last week

Kevin Robillard contributed reporting.

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