We're going to learn in the next two weeks, supposedly, if there really are 10 Senate Republicans willing to defy Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and vote to pass a watered-down infrastructure bill. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is working on a deadline of the week of July 18 for votes on both the bipartisan plan and a budget resolution, with reconciliation instructions for the package containing all the stuff that won't make it into the other bill, and can pass with just Democratic votes.
Given that there isn't any legislative text yet, that's ambitious, but they've named the burgeoning effort. It's now BIF, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (they're not even calling it a bill yet, so, yeah). And, yes, BIF. The White House is definitely not convinced. "Our understanding is that the process could begin as early as the week of 7/19, given that committees are still finalizing legislative text for both the budget resolution and the bipartisan bill," a White House official told Politico. "We of course support going forward as fast as possible, but it would be a mistake to think of July 19 as anything more than the opening of a window," the official added.
President Biden is moving on from touting BIF to pitching the American Families Plan, the "human infrastructure" proposal that Democrats are putting together as their budget reconciliation bill. "I'm here to make the case for the second critical part of my domestic agenda," Biden told a crowd in Illinois Wednesday. "It's a combination of parts of my American Jobs Plan that were essential and not included in the bipartisan infrastructure plan as well as my American Families Plan."
"It's time that we have to think bigger and we have to act bolder," he said, while at the same time drastically scaling down those bold initial plans for this BIF. The $579 billion in new spending reflects a loss of about one-third of what Biden proposed in hard infrastructure, including water systems and broadband. Some could end up in the reconciliation bill, but Biden has told the negotiators on the BIF package that he won't push for the additional water and broadband money to be included. That's not to say Democrats writing the bill can't do it themselves.
The BIF reduced broadband spending from $100 billion to $65 billion. Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program who leads the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, told The New York Times that that's not enough to "bridge the digital divide alone," and won't stretch into many of the areas that are hardest to connect. Instead of replacing every lead water pipe in the country, as initially proposed, this deal will narrow it to schools and child care facilities, Tribal nations, and disadvantaged communities. That's laudable, but it's not eliminating all the lead pipes delivering drinking water in the country—or providing all the plumbing jobs to complete it.
One of the highlights of Biden's original plan was $20 billion dedicated specifically to "reconnect" communities of color that were cut apart by highways built to bring white suburbanites into cities by plowing through existing neighborhoods. That's been carved down to $1 billion in the bipartisan bill.
This watering down of the initial proposal, and what's being targeted by those cuts, isn't going over well with plenty of Democrats, like Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York.
In a follow-up email to the The Washington Post, he explained further. "Look. If we do not fight for our communities and put them in the center of the work we do—if we continue to prioritize the myth of 'bipartisanship' over the people we were elected to fight for and represent in Washington—we will lose elections," Bowman said. "If we want to maintain control and the opportunity to do great work beyond 2022, Democrats need to deliver in this very moment. […] My priorities are with getting communities like mine back on our feet—not with compromising with Republicans."
He's not wrong. That puts more pressure on the senators, led by Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, to come up with a reconciliation bill that meets the expectations of disgruntled progressives and doesn't lose the "moderates" on the BIF team. Chances are pretty good that the BIF Democrats will be betrayed by Republicans and might feel burned enough to support a big, bold reconciliation package. But that's a matter of timing—if Republicans can string this out long enough they could achieve some compromises in that package too, through their willing partners on BIF.
There's one glimmer of positive news in this. In a call between White House officials and congressional aides Wednesday, the White House said that selling off federal government property—one of the proposed BIF answers to how to pay for this—would not be an option. That's a real positive. They are still looking at those "public/private partnerships. The BIF includes $7.5 billion to build electric vehicle charging stations and another $7.5 billion in loans and public-private partnerships to support the stations. Biden's original plan would have spent $174 billion on building and supporting charging stations. But at least so far they are ruling out a fire sale of existing infrastructure to the highest hedge fund bidders, who would then be in a position to make the public pay for its use all over again.
The American Families Plan, which Biden has pivoted to pitching, includes federal funding of paid leave for employees to care for themselves or a family member, universal prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, two years of free community college, and either extending or making permanent the expanded tax credit for parents. Sanders wants $6 trillion for the reconciliation bill, while the BIF Democrats are aiming for something more like $2 trillion.
All of which means there's an awful lot of negotiating—and bill writing—necessary for this to come to fruition in the next two weeks, as Schumer plans, so that the treasured August recess can happen for everyone. That recess might just be the thing that has to give.