I (kinda) told you so (so far)
The infrastructure deal shows Biden’s brand of bipartisanship just might work. The stubborn opposition to vaccines shows that the Republican brand of obstructionism and obfuscation definitely works.
The danger of writing anything about the infrastructure talks is that it will be out of date in a few days — or hours.
But the bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF for short) that morphed into the bipartisan infrastructure bill (BIB I guess?) has been declared dead more times than a soap opera villain.
Likewise, President Biden’s pursuit of bipartisanship has been panned by conservative and mainstream media alike.
And yet, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, Biden has proven his detractors wrong time and again.
I sincerely hope this continues to be the case because BIB, or BIF or whatever you want to call it, is big.
It’s the first truly bipartisan bill on a major issue that I can remember (a bill to boost competitiveness against China comes close, but it’s been bogged down by partisan infighting in the House). Infrastructure is something the public and both parties have been clamoring for for years.
Beyond a much-needed infusion of $550 billion in new spending on roads, bridges, ports, pipes and broadband, the bipartisan infrastructure bill offers a sensible pathway toward passing the separate $3.5 trillion social spending package that Democrats want to muscle through on a party-line reconciliation vote. That’s because if the hard infrastructure bill fails, incorporating 2,702 pages of complex provisions into an already hugely complex bill is a recipe for dissension and chaos.
Everything Could Go Wrong
Despite the surprising progress Senate Republicans and Democrats have made on infrastructure, it comes with the inevitable caveat: Nothing is done until everything is done.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is keeping lawmakers away from their cherished August recess in the hopes of prodding them to pass BIB.
It looks like debate could wrap up this weekend, but Schumer still has a lot working against him: a quarantined senator (Lindsey Graham, whose absence means one less vote and thus even less room for error); a barrage of amendments; up to 30 hours of post-cloture debate next week; and yet-to-be-released scoring by the Congressional Budget Office that could upend the fuzzy math Senators have relied on to ensure that their nearly $1 trillion infrastructure package is fully paid for. [Update: After this writing, the CBO said the legislation would raise deficits by about $250 billion over the next decade, although that prediction isn’t expected to threaten the bill’s passage.]
Schumer also has to pass the even bigger $3.5 budget resolution — and survive a marathon vote-a-rama where Republicans are sure to force Democrats to vote on poison pill amendments — before the Senate can go into recess.
And that’s just the Senate. Schumer’s also got a House full of progressives who have zero trust in Republicans and are refusing to consider the hard infrastructure package until their $3.5 trillion plan passes. These progressives are ready to pounce at the first sign of cracks in the Senate.
And those cracks could easily emerge because any bill is weeks away from Biden’s desk (the House doesn’t even come back from recess until Sept. 20). That’s a lifetime in legislative years — not to mention that come September, Congress will have the herculean task of funding the government and lifting the debt ceiling to keep the country from going into default.
A ton can go wrong, but things can still go right, and I don’t believe that Republican and Democratic senators, along with the White House, have invested this much political capital only to see their efforts go down the drain.
Over the last several months, we’ve seen a determination and sincerity among lawmakers and the administration that hasn’t happened since the Bush administration, when both parties tried to tackle immigration reform and climate change.
Trump’s Latest Tirade
The rare bout of bipartisanship on infrastructure has left former President Donald Trump bitter that it didn’t happen under his watch.
He’s now railing against the infrastructure deal to kill it, but he only has himself to blame for not getting it done himself.
Trump’s “infrastructure weeks” became a running joke in Washington because he’d invariably sabotage them by stirring up some distracting controversy or failing to provide any specifics or follow-up for lawmakers.
The former president’s ADD approach to governing via tweet also became a running joke inside Washington, but it had very real consequences for the Republican Party. Trump’s inability to stay focused on any one subject — other than how the media portrayed him or how loyal his party was to him — sunk what could’ve been a legacy-making agenda given his unquestionable hold over the GOP.
But after four years of name-calling, corruption scandals and constant turnover, it’s hard to pinpoint any real legislative victories the master dealmaker negotiated (those tax cuts were all Mitch McConnell).
Trump’s failure to produce anything tangible is the predictable result of cobbling together a skeletal team of aides with little or no government experience. It’s also what happens when a president spends most of his time pitting his staff against one another to watch them duke it out and win his favor, instead of dispatching them to do actual work. “The Apprentice” was good for TV ratings. Actual legislation? Not so much.
Biden’s Steady Hand
In stark contrast, Biden has spent months courting Republicans to enact his agenda. According to Punchbowl News, the White House says that since June, it has had 375 meetings with chiefs of staff and members of Congress.
The Washington Post has a detailed article on Biden’s quiet, tenacious outreach to Republicans.
It points out that when Biden almost tanked his own talks by linking the bipartisan deal with the Democrat-only reconciliation plan, he went into damage control mode, calling his angry Republican allies to assuage them.
Could you imagine Trump apologizing, let alone compromising, to keep his agenda on track? No, which is why much of his agenda never went beyond Twitter.
Not to mention the fact that Trump’s incessant belittling of his fellow Republican lawmakers didn’t exactly inspire them to go out on limb for an unpredictable president who threw even his most ardent supporters under the bus.
Biden has shown Republicans a respect they were never given by their own boss, and moderate Republicans have responded in kind by engaging in good-faith negotiations.
Now, with Trump trying to undermine those talks, the question is whether these moderates will finally say enough and stop holding their noses to appease a popular but vapid, vindictive leader.
Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — the “grim reaper” notorious for burying Democrats’ ambitions — voted to proceed with the infrastructure debate, a sign that at least some Republicans are fed up with Trump’s noise.
The Progressive Factor
But never underestimate McConnell’s shrewdness. Axios reports that McConnell is urging Republicans to back Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a key Democratic swing vote. His motivation is likely twofold: He needs Sinema’s support to keep the filibuster intact. But it’s also not out of the question that by praising Sinema, he’s setting a trap for progressives to criticize — and thus alienate — her.
Progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seem to be taking the bait, blasting Sinema — who supports lowering the cost of the $3.5 trillion Democratic package — with tweets like: “Good luck tanking your own party’s investment on childcare, climate action, and infrastructure while presuming you’ll survive a 3 vote House margin.”
House progressives can indeed tank the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but by doing so, they’ll likely wreck their entire legislative agenda because Sinema, along with Sen. Joe Manchin, would jump ship.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi surely knows this, so despite her pledge that BIB won’t pass the House until the reconciliation bill makes it through the Senate, I doubt Pelosi will ultimately let Biden’s entire economic agenda collapse. She knows something is better than nothing.
Unlike Trump, Pelosi isn’t all talk. She’s about the votes.
And unlike Trump, Biden knows that being loud often just translates into noise.
The infrastructure talks encapsulate Biden’s presidency: His quiet, even boring, persona masks a bold agenda and enduring belief that Washington can still work.
The Coronavirus Conundrum
It’s an approach born of necessity in today’s toxic partisan environment — and it’s the same approach he’s being forced to take in the pandemic as he tries to chip away at the vaccine opposition nurtured by conservatives.
With the country moving backward in its fight against the pandemic, frustration among the vaccinated is mounting against those who still refuse to get the shot.
Not only is this refusal threatening to undo the country’s economic recovery, it could also eventually threaten the vaccinated because viruses mutate. So while vaccines have thus far proven effective against the delta variant, at some point a more potent mutation could emerge that strips the vaccinated of their protection.
The dangers of breakthrough infections recently hit close to home for lawmakers when Sen. Lindsey Graham contracted the virus during a bipartisan get-together hosted by Sen. Joe Manchin — threatening to knock a whole bloc of senators out of commission during the critical infrastructure debate this week.
Fortunately, Graham and everyone else in the group was vaccinated. Yet despite Graham’s illness, Republican senators who theoretically could be carrying the virus still refused to wear a mask on the Senate floor.
We’re talking about a piece cloth you occasionally wear on part of your face — not a suit of armor.
Tell someone who’s lived in an authoritarian state that putting on a mask infringes on your personal liberty and they’re likely to laugh in your (unmasked) face.
Regardless, personal liberty stops when it infringes on other people’s right to live.
And in the U.S. we’re still largely talking about mask mandates, not even the vaccine mandates European countries are moving ahead with.
In a rare burst of honesty from a political leader, French President Emmanuel Macron blasted an anti-vax protester who argued that requiring proof of vaccination violated her personal liberty.
In response, Macron said:
“Everyone is free to express themselves peacefully. But ‘freedom where I owe nothing to anyone else’ doesn’t exist. Freedom relies on reciprocal duty.
If tomorrow you infect your father, your mother, or me, I am a victim of your freedom, despite the fact that you had the option to protect yourself and to protect me.
In the name of your freedom, you may get a serious form [of the virus] and you may go into hospital. And then all the staff who have to take care of you will have to stop taking care of someone else. That is not freedom. That is irresponsibility and selfishness.”
Biden could never say that. The conservative uproar would derail his entire vaccination campaign.
The president’s hands are tied because while he cares about saving American lives, the conservative ecosystem that has pushed conspiracy theories about the virus and the vaccine cares about profiting off ignorance.
While pundits like Sean Hannity have led the pack, Republican politicians who are only now touting the benefits of vaccines share the blame as well.
Why, for instance, are we even praising Republicans like Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise for finally getting vaccinated? His state has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. Scalise would’ve deserved praise if he had bothered to promote the vaccine months earlier.
Meanwhile, in Florida, an epicenter of the current coronavirus resurgence, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has fought to prevent local governments and school districts from instituting any mask mandates.
Republicans are now vehemently denouncing the return of masks — even though their vehement opposition to vaccines are why masks are back in the first place.
Biden is powerless, though, in forcing red states to change course. Any talk of mandates would trigger a Republican revolt that could unravel the progress the White House has made in combating vaccine hesitancy.
So instead, Biden has taken incremental steps to get the country where it needs to go. He’s requiring all federal workers to get vaccinated or face repeated testing, paving the way for the private sector to do the same. Meanwhile, proof of vaccination is slowly being adopted in places like New York City.
Trying to rationally convince skeptics that vaccines won’t kill them has run its course. Poll after poll has shown that a significant portion of Republicans will not get the vaccine no matter what.
Unfortunately, the only way to convince these hard-core anti-vaxxers is to make life as difficult as possible for them. It’s their choice not to get vaccinated. But it’s also a business’s choice not to serve them. Choices have consequences.
Punishing the unvaccinated by barring them from restaurants, for example, will never happen in this country, and any vaccine mandates are likely to be localized and ad hoc, limiting their effectiveness. Sadly, skeptics will only be convinced until enough of them get sick or die.
But can the rest of us wait that long?
That’s the question Biden is wrestling with as he tries to overcome what at this point has become willful ignorance.
One ICU doctor documented how this ignorance plays out every day:
“I am angry that it takes me over an hour to explain to an anti-vaxxer full of misinformation that intubation isn’t what ‘kills patients’ and that their wish for chest compressions without intubation in the event of a respiratory arrest makes no sense,” Dr. Thanh Neville wrote in a HuffPost op-ed. “I am angry at those who refuse to wear ‘muzzles’ when grocery shopping for half an hour a week, as I have been so-called ‘muzzled’ for much of the past 18 months.”
At the same time, a WebMD and Medscape Medical News analysis found that one in four hospital workers who have direct contact with patients are still not vaccinated.
The fact that medical professionals won’t get vaccinated illustrates the enormity of the challenge that Biden faces.
I still believe that infrastructure — and by extension, the Democrats’ social spending package — has a halfway decent chance of seeing the light of day. But I believe we could be in for another dark winter of hospitalizations and lockdowns if we keep allowing conspiracy theories to prevail over common sense. On the latter, I’d love to be proven wrong so I can’t write another “I told you so” column.