President Joe Biden assigned some homework to Senate Republicans last week, demanding they put a real infrastructure plan together so that he and the Democrats working on their legislative bits actually have something to react to and negotiate with. Thus far, the Republicans seem to have presented little more than vague talk about anywhere from $600 to $800 billion on roads and bridges and maybe some broadband, all funded by user fees, leftover COVID-19 relief, and pixie dust. Because their red line is any tax increase on anyone—anyone except the poor schlubs having to pay the user fees.
That has been rejected, again, by the White House. Biden's own "red line," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterated Friday, is either increasing the gas tax or imposing new user fees. Those, the White House says, are tantamount to tax increases on people making less than $400,000—Biden's threshold—and are not going to happen.
Neither is the paltry $568 billion offer the Republicans first produced, such a ridiculous low-ball that nonetheless spent twice as much as what Biden has envisioned for roads and bridges, doubling down on fossil fuel and giving the finger to the new green elements of Biden's plan. In recent weeks, the paucity of that effort has become clear even to Mitch McConnell, who put that $800 billion number out into the atmosphere. Along with the refusal to reconsider any of his massive 2017 tax giveaway to corporations and rich people.
So the Republicans are expected to cough up something seemingly more concrete and generous as early as Monday—Biden gave them a due date of this Tuesday. As a benchmark, Biden's proposal for $2.25 trillion on the American Jobs Plan, the first infrastructure hit, includes $115 billion to modernize the bridges, highways, and roads of the fossil fuel age. It has another $85 billion for public transit, $80 billion for Amtrak, and $174 billion to build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, to electrify 20% of school buses, and to electrify the federal fleet. He'd spend $100 billion on broadband, $25 billion for airports, and $111 billion for water projects. Biden also includes a critical $400 billion for home-based care for elderly and disabled people and $300 billion toward building and retrofitting homes.
Biden wants to increase the tax rate on corporations, slashed from 35% to 21% by the 2017 tax scam, back not all the way to 35% but to a middle ground. He's proposed 28% but has had pushback from Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin to reduce that down to 25%. Meanwhile, corporate lobbyists and executives are crowing about the influence they have with the likes of Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, and the likelihood that they’ll be able kill any larger tax increases. "With business-minded and more centrist members on the Democratic side in both the House and Senate, they look at the scope and breadth of these tax increases for the infrastructure and families plans and they just find them jaw-dropping," Neil Bradley, chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told Politico.
One of the lobbyists did concede, however, that these moderate Democrats "are mostly willing to go with a 25 percent corporate tax, and the odds of that getting through reconciliation are pretty solid." That’s a problem that has to be worked out as well, with a restive House progressive cadre that doesn’t want to sacrifice the social spending side of this while Biden continues dealing with the Republicans.
"We can’t wait for Republicans to deliver," Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal said Thursday. "The best solution is still to go with one bill and get everything done." She added that if Biden can strike a deal with Republicans, "it is going to be unlikely that we would vote for a smaller package if we don’t know that the reconciliation bill was already agreed to and moving at the same time."
Republicans are starting to have to think beyond user fees to how they can counter that and raise the necessary funds. Idaho's Mike Crapo wants to do it the second worst possible way after user fees: relaxing environmental restrictions on construction permits. Mississippi's Roger Wicker piped up with the idea of loosening the laws on public-private partnerships, opening the door to potential graft and to likely user fees since that's how many of these agreements involve fee or toll collection to get private entities interested.
The talks continue, with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sounding optimistic in an interview Friday. Asked if the plan can pass a 50-50 Senate, he was cautiously upbeat. "What we're doing is looking at where the common ground might be," he said. "Obviously there's a big difference in perspective on a lot of dimensions around infrastructure, including our definitions—our broad definition—of what America's infrastructure needs really are. But there's also a lot that we can agree on, and the president strongly believes in a bipartisan approach to get as much support as we can for a way forward."
That includes repairing roads and bridges—he highlighted the critically damaged I-40 bridge over the Mississippi at the plan linking Arkansas and Tennessee, a bridge that closed down because of a huge crack, backing up road and river traffic. That's "showing why we need to do more as a country," Buttigieg said. "We need first-rate infrastructure if we want to have a first-place economy. This is a matter of economic competitiveness as well as safety and well-being."
He also focused on universal broadband access as an example of the broader definition of infrastructure the Biden administration has taken. "This is not a road. It's not a bridge. But it's just as important," he said. "[Y]ou need a connection to the internet just as much as you need a connection to the interstate highway system in order to participate in the economy, in order to be connected to other communities, even to be connected within your own community and, for kids, even to do your homework," he continued. "This is not optional. This is not a luxury." Republicans have conceded as much as $65 billion for broadband internet, compared to Biden's initial $100 billion figure. So that's one area where there might be progress.
Senate Democrats are holding hearings this week in the Banking and Finance committees. The Banking Committee, chaired by Sherrod Brown, will hear from Buttigieg and from Housing Secretary Marci Fudge. It's tasked with the transit and housing part of the bill. Ron Wyden's Finance Committee will hold a Tuesday hearing on "Funding and Financing Options to Bolster American Infrastructure." Those are the lead efforts by Democrats on pushing the larger bill forward.