President Joe Biden laid out a far-reaching agenda to Congress on Wednesday night, one that implored his former Senate colleagues and the House of Representatives to get to work and close out nearly a dozen issues that he has worked on for most of his career.
But the wish list faces a harsh reality in Congress, where lawmakers may be more engaged in policy than we’ve seen for years, but the dynamics of a narrow majority and ideologically diverse Democratic caucus threatens Biden’s legacy as a transformative President and none of those agenda items is more ambitious than his plan to redefine infrastructure.
Bottom line: The President said as much with what he did say Wednesday night as what he didn’t. Biden wasted little time trying to convince Republicans, instead focusing his time and energy on running through a series of agenda items that lawmakers have been grappling with for years: gun control, policing, infrastructure, immigration, raising the minimum wage, providing more education for workers and raising taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans that Biden has argued do not always pay their fair share.
But, while many of those items are within reach within the Democratic caucus, as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia put it Wednesday, “the devil is in the details” and on infrastructure, it’s especially true.
This week, the White House formally unveiled part two of their infrastructure plan, providing 12 weeks of paid emergency and family leave, expanding access to childcare, expanding Obamacare subsidies and extending the expansion of the more generous child tax credit that passed in the Covid relief bill.
But, Biden’s frameworks shouldn’t be seen as the final step. Congress is not going to take the plan, put it into a bill and pass it in the next month. The White House spent this week educating lawmakers and key committee staff on what their priorities are when it comes to the families’ plan, but Congress won’t be passing a carbon copy. As aides have said, all that has happened so far is the first leg of a relay is over. Now, Congress has the baton, and their leg of the race is a lot longer and way more fraught.
The sticking points on infrastructure
For weeks, most Democrats have tried to keep their powder dry when it comes to the President’s plans. Not so subtly, however, Democrats have challenged provisions by introducing their own plans in recent weeks.
On Tuesday, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts, introduced a bill that was sweeping in scope and permanently expanded the child tax credit, while the White House’s plan only extends it through 2025.
He wasn’t the only one. This week, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, introduced her own bill as well to permanently expand the tax credit. A group of Senate Democrats led by the Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont sent a letter to the White House imploring them the President to expand Medicare in his “families plan” so that coverage of eye care, hearing aids and dental work were covered, drawing a line that health care should be a more central component of infrastructure.
On the other end of the spectrum, a handful of Senate moderates, including Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Manchin, have made it clear they are uncomfortable by the price tag of Biden’s infrastructure plans. Manchin also has signaled that he’s not happy with the way that Biden finances the plan, with some of the tax increases on corporations being too dramatic in his view.
A list of sticking points:
- Price tag
- How long to expand the child tax credit
- Whether to include an overhaul of prescription drugs
- Whether to include an expansion of Medicare
- How to pay for the bill
- Whether to pay for all the bill
- How high to raise the corporate tax rate
- Whether the bill should be bipartisan
- Can the bill be used to scrap the $10,000 cap on the state and local tax deduction
All of that said, infrastructure clearly was and has been one of the President’s top agenda items. Yes, he mentioned policing reform. Yes, he mentioned guns. Yes, he mentioned immigration. But, infrastructure is the bill that Biden campaigned on that made him a transformative President for the economy. It’s the issue that the White House has felt is so important that they released their own blueprints of how it should look and then spent weeks holding meetings with every corner of the Democratic caucus to try and sell it. They’ve engaged with Republicans across the ideological spectrum and continue to spend days consumed by the work it is going to take to pass this bill or bills. Congress can do more than one thing at a time and they will, but the emphasis on infrastructure Wednesday night underscores just how much is at stake if Congress cannot get it done.
How they will tackle this
There isn’t a grand plan at the moment. But emerging is a parallel track approach that will give Democrats and Republicans room to negotiate for a bit on the bipartisan pieces of infrastructure all while the Senate Budget Committee begins work on a budget that will provide the path to pass infrastructure with just Democratic votes if the bipartisan talks collapse.
Sanders said Wednesday his committee would begin that process when he returns in May. The bipartisan talks are in their infancy and would need to pick up the pace rapidly if they are going to have a major impact on the size and scope of an infrastructure package the President signs, but the White House is engaged, and there is one line of thinking that Democrats and Republicans might be able to agree on a modest infrastructure bill that included water, surface transportation and potentially even legislation to make the US more competitive against China. Then, Democrats could come back and pass a broader infrastructure bill with more of the social programs in it, through reconciliation later in the summer. But none of it is decided. And it is important to underscore the form this ultimately takes is going to shift multiple times before this all ends.