A measure that would have allowed the United States Senate to begin debating a $1 trillion package of spending on roads, public transit, broadband, and more was defeated on a party line vote Wednesday afternoon, adding another link to the yearslong chain of failed attempts to rebuild the country's critical infrastructure.
But the measure's defeat masks the real possibility that Democrats and Republicans may yet be able to come together and pass the legislation. A number of Republicans who voted against beginning debate promised that they will support the measure early next week, saying that they were reluctant to begin debate on the measure because the legislative language hasn't been finished yet, and analysis of its impact on the federal budget is still not available.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the vote — which was widely expected to fail — for a number of reasons. One of those was to appease a restless core of left-leaning Democrats who believe the monthslong effort to find a bill that both sides of the political aisle can agree on is the result of delaying tactics by Republicans who do not plan to support it regardless of what the final package looks like.
If Americans are skeptical about Congress actually reaching a deal, they have good reason. The seeming inability of the U.S. government to act on the widely acknowledged need to update the country's critical infrastructure has become a grim joke in Washington.
The signs of infrastructure decay have been painfully obvious for years, from the widely publicized contamination of Flint, Michigan's drinking water with lead, to the tens of thousands of bridges rated "structurally deficient," to faulty water mains that leak an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water each day.
With the need so apparent, why has an agreement on an infrastructure package been so elusive? As with many things in Washington, there is no single reason, but rather a constellation of policy and political factors that have intertwined to thwart progress.
Lack of trust
The relationship between the two parties in Washington has become so toxic in recent years that few members of Congress from either party are willing to take political gambles that require support from the other side of the aisle to be successful.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, said that it was a lack of trust that kept many of his colleagues from voting to begin debate on the current infrastructure package without seeing the complete legislative language. "You can't vote on a framework. There just isn't the kind of trust around it right now that would allow that to happen," he said.
For their part, Democrats point to times when members of the GOP have participated in monthslong debates over legislation on health care and immigration reform, only to have the party's leadership withhold its support when it came time for a final vote.
Even when the issue in question is something on which there is broad agreement in general, political calculations are never far from the surface in Washington, particularly when the margins of difference in the House of Representatives and the Senate are as slim as they are today.
With their eyes on the 2022 elections, in which they hold a strong chance of winning back one or both houses of Congress, Republicans are going to be very judicious about when and how they give Biden a "win" on anything.
However, in the case of this infrastructure bill, there seems to be a willingness on the part of a number of Senate Republicans — a total of 10 will be necessary to overcome the filibuster — to get a deal done. After the failed vote Wednesday, 11 GOP senators signed on to a letter to Schumer that said, in part, they are "optimistic that we will finalize, and be prepared to advance, this historic bipartisan proposal."
How will it be paid for?
The largest sticking point in the ongoing negotiations is more concrete: how to pay for it. The proposal anticipates $1 trillion in spending, a little more than $400 billion of which would come from redirecting money that had been directed at other priorities. The remainder, nearly $600 billion, has to come from somewhere, and there is significant disagreement about where.
Democrats had to shelve a plan to beef up the Internal Revenue Service's enforcement arm, a measure that would have been expected to generate hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue from tax cheats, but Republicans balked at the plan, leaving a large hole in the funding element of the proposal.
Negotiators are currently considering the repeal of a change to Medicare-related rules on payments for prescription drugs. Reversing the change, which would have cost the government money, would result in savings that could be applied to the infrastructure bill.
One final concern that has some Republicans reluctant to support the measure is the fear of inflation. The federal government has spent an enormous amount of money — some $4 trillion so far — in efforts to help the country recover from the recession induced by the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, the Federal Reserve has flooded the economy with liquidity by keeping interest rates low and buying up mortgage-backed securities.
That combination, some argue, leaves the U.S. open to a spiral of wage and price hikes that could force the Fed to sharply raise rates, triggering a recession in 2022. This has made some Republicans reluctant to sign off on still more spending.
However, supporters of the infrastructure package say there is still considerable "slack" in the U.S. economy, and their position was backed up Wednesday when Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Analytics, released a 15-page analysis of the package in which he referred to the inflation concerns as "overdone."
Zandi argued that much of the infrastructure investment, which would stimulate long-term economic growth, would actually create downward pressure on inflation.