Biden's big, transformative infrastructure plan could set up a filibuster fight

Biden's big, transformative infrastructure plan could set up a filibuster fight
Nancy Pelosi

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Because we have a real president now, "infrastructure week" actually means something! Though it's more likely to be "infrastructure spring." By all accounts, that's the next big push from Congress and the White House—repairing dangerously broken transportation, water, electrical and broadband systems, as well as the communities most harmed by past failures and a long history of fossil fuel and individual car worship, as Hunter wrote about last week.

The administration moved early in President Biden's term to frame infrasructure from a civil rights perspective, asking a review of housing policy from his predecessor that considered the effects on neighborhoods and housing of the Interstate Highway System, which produced highways "deliberately built to pass through Black neighborhoods, often requiring the destruction of housing and other local institutions." Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg reiterated that focus in an interview in Politico last week, saying that the policy behind that system was "not just a matter of halfway accidental neglect" but "intentional decisions that happened." Fixing that must be just as intentional. How that happens is less clear.

Because, once again, Biden and congressional Democrats are stymied by that Jim Crow-era legislative hangover, the Senate filibuster. They are also hampered by the grandstanding of one Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who took an unprincipled stand against doing the bill by reconciliation after his efforts to erode vital assistance to the unemployed in the American Rescue Plan. Manchin declared he would refuse to allow the bill to be passed by reconciliation, the process Congress used on the COVID-19 relief bill in order to speed it up and prevent Republicans from being able to sabotage it. Reconciliation bills can be passed by simple majority and are not subject to filibuster rules.

"I'm not going to do it through reconciliation. I am not going to get on a bill that cuts [Republicans] out completely before we start trying," Manchin told Axios about the infrastructure bill. At the same time, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Peter DeFazio said that might be how it has to happen, at least partially. "The money could be raised through Reconciliation—and the money will be a big hangup," he told CNBC.

"It is going to be green and it is going to be big," DeFazio said in another interview. That could mean a compromise: handling all the revenue raising for the bill by reconciliation, a more clear-cut means of getting billions—or trillions—of funding authorized, and setting the policy and specific projects for all that funding through the regular legislative process. That effort could be enough to get Manchin onboard filibuster reform, when he sees just how unwilling Republicans are to work with him and with Biden.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Friday that she had directed senior Democrats and committee chairs to start working with Republicans to craft a "big, bold and transformational infrastructure package." Republicans are all for the spending in their districts, but not so much for the "transformational" part, not wanting to see climate change or equity built into the bill. That's where the idea of splitting up the money and the policy parts of it could also splinter. Nonetheless, DeFazio says he has a "tentative timeline" of his committee completing its part of the bill by the end of May.

That means investments in a number of the Green New Deal proposals and more: in the usual big road and bridge building and repair; in zero-emission buses; electric vehicle charging stations; zero-carbon electricity generation by 2035; a concentration of funding, including in federal contracts, for people and communities of color; renovation and rebuilding of affordable housing; and expanded high-speed broadband internet everywhere. Those are the kinds of goodies—especially broadband—that could get Republicans onboard for at least some of it. This is where another tweak in congressional rules could come in: restoring earmarks. The member-directed spending that allows lawmakers to target specific needs in their states and districts is coming back after tea party Republicans tried to kill it a decade ago. It will be reformed and more transparent than in the old "bridge to nowhere" days, but back.

"Building roads and bridges and water supply systems and the rest has always been bipartisan, always been bipartisan, except when they oppose it with a Democratic president, as they did under President Obama, and we had to shrink the package," Pelosi said on This Week on ABC on Sunday. "But, nonetheless, hopefully, we will have bipartisanship," she said. "This is about broadband. It's about water systems. It's about mass transit, it's about good paying jobs all over the country," she said. "It's also about schools and housing and the rest. […] So the goal is to promote good growth, creating good-paying jobs as we protect our planet and are fiscally sound."

Biden's plan during the campaign had a price tag of about $2 trillion, an investment that would be a smart companion to the COVID-19 relief bill for economic recovery because it would be a jobs machine. Which of course means Republicans won't want it to pass because they don't want Biden to have another success. Which also means that this could be the fight that ends the filibuster.

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