What’s Good and What’s Dangerous in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill

What’s Good and What’s Dangerous in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill

What’s Good and What’s Dangerous in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill

Progressives need to hold strong for the reconciliation bill, but all Democrats should remember: There is no infrastructure as important as the foundation of democracy, which is voting rights.


Let the record reflect: On Tuesday, I was proven wrong twice.

I predicted on Twitter and elsewhere that abusive New York Governor Andrew Cuomo would not resign, at least not soon, despite Attorney General Leticia James’s damning report detailing the way he abused 11 female state employees just a week ago. Also: I insisted the long-hyped bipartisan infrastructure bill would probably never pass. The day it was announced, I got off a good headline: “Will the Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan Turn Out to Be A Bridge to Nowhere?” That was in June, and most weeks since then, it looked like I was right. Until, suddenly, I wasn’t.

Cuomo resigned within the week, and the bipartisan bill passed. I’ll take the “L.” Or “Ls.”

But “a bridge to nowhere” might not have been the worst way to describe the infrastructure deal. I believed Democrats were trying to prove to Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema that Republicans won’t join in any of their bipartisan ventures. I was wrong; 19 did. Still, it’s unlikely to lead to more bipartisanship on important issues, or, actually, any issues anyone can think of, anytime soon. It was in fact a bridge to a lovely island of bipartisanship, which its visitors will likely not return to again.

Or at least anytime in Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s career. And perhaps beyond.

There is widespread agreement about a few things, which I mostly share. Most important, Democrats had to do this deal to placate their two most obstreperous moderate senators, West Virginia’s Manchin and Arizona’s Sinema. Sinema, especially, gets a win, as she’s credited with steering the good ship Bipartisan over perilous waters, and all the knowingest profiles say Republicans love her. I’ll try not to hold that against her.

Let’s also admit that it wasn’t just Sinema and Manchin but several other Democrats, from red-state stalwarts like Montana’s Jon Tester to blue-staters like Virginia’s Mark Warner (still wounded from when his state was red, maybe, or else addicted to corporate solutions to human problems). who wanted this bipartisan deal. They set out to prove they did what their voters say they want: Work with the other side. They did, and they got a win.

That was true of some Republicans, too. I’m moderately heartened that the 19 GOP senators who supported the bill ignored the bleating of disgraced Former Guy Donald Trump, who tried so hard to scuttle this bill, because it’s something he promised—Infrastructure Week!—over and over, and never even bothered to try to accomplish. I’m as partisan as any Democrat, but I think it’s a good thing that we have some evidence of Republicans, who fell in line for the increasingly authoritarian and deranged Trump, especially after January 6, walking toward the light of reality. Keep going, folks!

OK, now for the bad news. I think the main reason McConnell green-lighted this deal was self-interest all the way down. First, Kentucky really, really needs roads, bridges, broadband, new water pipes—everything this bill provides, and more. It offers help he hasn’t bothered to fight much for while he works overtime for the wealthy and their corporate leaders. (Also: A lot of corporate leaders like government-funded infrastructure.)

The most cynical part: I believe McConnell orchestrated this lovely symphony of bipartisanship to drown out the chorus of liberal Democrats heralding two priorities: their proposed $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” budget resolution (which can pass without Republicans), and, maybe most important, some kind of filibuster reform—better described as “majority rule in the Senate”—that could pass essential voting rights legislation.

I believe McConnell was playing, particularly, to Manchin and Sinema, and hoping to lull them into believing there is no need for Democrats-only reconciliation—he’ll fail on that, though the two centrists may slash the bill’s price tag harshly—plus any filibuster reform. Including, or maybe especially, a proposed “carve-out” on voting rights. (The quick version: A few Senate decisions, like budget resolutions and, sadly, Supreme Court nominees, can be decided by majority vote. Why shouldn’t voting rights, the foundation of democracy, be privileged in the same way? That’s what Stacey Abrams and many Democrats, even moderates, are proposing.)

The great E.J. Dionne sees this much the same way I do, which is not unusual. “Not everything that’s bipartisan is good, and not everything that’s good is bipartisan. Bipartisanship should be a method, not a fetish.” He knows, from experience, there are still some Democrats, especially in the Senate but also in the House, for whom it’s still a fetish.

Although there were 50 Democratic votes in the Senate to proceed to debate on the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, we still don’t know if Manchin, Sinema, and other centrists, who voted to move it forward for debate, will support it at anything like its current level of investment and innovation. Meanwhile, especially in the House, progressives are threatening to vote no on the bipartisan bill unless they get promises from moderate Senate Democrats that they’ll support the reconciliation bill. It’s tense out there.

Manchin made folks anxious, and a little bit angry, on Wednesday, with a statement explaining that while he voted last night to move the reconciliation bill forward to debate, he’s still not sold on its price tag. “I firmly believe that continuing to spend at irresponsible levels puts at risk our nation’s ability to respond to the unforeseen crises our country could face,” Manchin said. He promised “weeks, if not months” of debate—while Democratic leaders are trying to push the bipartisan bill through as quickly as possible.

I know there’s a lot of posturing going on. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent reminds us that Manchin regularly enjoys performative opposition moves—and then, ultimately, falls in line, for relatively little in concessions. That was the case on Biden’s American Rescue Plan, passed with only Democratic votes and shaved down only a bit by the West Virginia centrist. Sargent sees Democrats doing a very complicated dance—it’s not aesthetically pleasing, but it might be strategically effective—to give both moderates and progressives what they want. I hope Sargent is right, and, luckily, he normally is.

So, to recap. The bipartisan infrastructure bill is good, because there are good things in it (though not enough), and also because it’s good to get 19 Republicans out from under the thumb of Donald Trump and his creeping fascism. It’s also dangerous, because McConnell thinks he’s set a trap to undermine support for the transformative budget reconciliation bill, with its groundbreaking “human infrastructure” investments, and most important, for creating a voting rights carve-out from the antidemocratic filibuster.

Put me down as anxious but cautiously optimistic that Democratic leaders are beginning to do something new. They’re figuring out they need their progressive flank, even as they appease their moderate flank, to pass Biden’s agenda—much of which is Senator Bernie Sanders’s agenda, too.

Biden sounds convinced: “I think that the House will eventually put two bills on my desk, one on infrastructure, and one on reconciliation.” I hope he’s right. But mostly, I hope voting rights won’t get lost in the tumult. There is no infrastructure as important as the foundation of democracy.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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