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Biden's multitrillion-dollar infrastructure jam

The president has yet to develop a roadmap for getting his reported $3 trillion effort through Congress, where it could hit a dead end.
President Joe Biden speaks after meeting with leaders from Georgia's Asian-American and Pacific Islander community on March 19, 2021, at Emory University in Atlanta.
If earmarks aren't enough to attract Republicans, Biden will be pressured to find an alternative path for his infrastructure package.Patrick Semansky / AP

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is signaling that his next big push in Congress will be for legislation implementing the transportation, infrastructure and green-energy elements of his "Build Back Better" campaign platform, with a reported potential price tag of $3 trillion.

But Biden has yet to develop a roadmap for getting the effort through Congress, where partisan divisions, the massive cost and possible tax hikes could all lead to a dead end.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her House Democrats are moving forward on plans to pass legislation that would not only fund roads, bridges and mass transit but also deliver on Biden's vow to address climate change. But in the Senate, that plan doesn't appear to have enough support even among Democrats, with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia saying he wants new spending to be both bipartisan and paid for with tax increases. Raising taxes is as anathema to the GOP as the Democrats' Green New Deal.

All of that means Biden will likely have to take the scenic route, according to congressional officials and lobbyists who are working on the issue. Biden was able to score a relatively easy win in his first two months with a Covid-19 relief bill that passed along party lines. But allies say the hard part begins now. His promise to work across party lines will be tested — and how he’s able to navigate the competing demands of progressives, centrist Democrats and Republicans amid this push could set the tone for the rest of his presidency.

"They have a long way to go before they get from here to there," one business lobbyist said of a push to enact legislation that could reshape federal policy on transportation, energy, the environment and broadband access while injecting trillions of dollars into the economy.

Biden will be briefed on the size and scope of the infrastructure planning this week to get his thoughts, said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. No decision has been made on what a final package would look like, she said.

Top Biden advisers have said they see his first address to a joint session of Congress as a pivot point for the new president to move from selling the just-enacted American Rescue Plan Act to his infrastructure initiative. That speech has not yet been scheduled, but it is expected to come in the next several weeks.

At the same time, Biden is trying to find a way to avoid a snarl on Capitol Hill. He and his top aides are in ongoing discussions with top lawmakers in both parties, business leaders and labor officials about their wish lists and red lines on the measure. The public will get a preview of Biden's priorities when Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg testifies before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday.

Buttigieg should "eat his Wheaties" before that session, the panel's chairman, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said in announcing the hearing.

DeFazio, a founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is in charge of drafting a rewrite of the nation's surface transportation laws that will sit at the heart of any major infrastructure legislation. The version DeFazio wrote in the last Congress, which passed the House and died in the Senate, included a variety of provisions designed to address climate change by shifting away from traditional energy sources and limiting pollutants.

By comparison, that bill would have cost just $450 billion in infrastructure spending and green-energy incentives.

While Pelosi pushes her lieutenants to move forward on one track, White House advisers are hoping Congress can pass a few smaller bipartisan bills, like legislation that would improve American competitiveness against China and some other items on the national security front, to build momentum and show a willingness to work with Republicans.

Republicans are currently suggesting less willingness to work with Biden. "We’re hearing the next few months might bring a so-called infrastructure proposal that may actually be a Trojan horse for massive tax hikes and other job-killing left-wing policies," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Monday. "Remember, the House Democrats tipped their hand last year. They published a sprawling proposal that pretended to be a highway bill but was really just a multithousand-page cousin of the Green New Deal."

One outside adviser to the White House cautioned that Biden will give Republicans a limited window of time before turning to more partisan means to enact an infrastructure law. It was one of his key campaign pledges, and he backed it with a stated goal of spending $2 trillion to rebuild highways and bridges, transition toward clean power, create jobs in the auto industry, and improve mass transit.

Getting something done is a priority for both Biden and congressional Democrats. Party strategists say they see the passage of any infrastructure bill — whether it is tailored narrowly to fund existing programs or written to sweep in progressive priorities — as a major selling point in the 2022 midterm elections. If earmarks are allowed in the process, members will be able to jockey to get millions of dollars for pet projects in their district.

"Every member has something they need, and everyone will get to stand with a check," said a Democratic Senate staffer. "This is the Recovery Act on steroids in the gym with cocaine."

But if earmarks aren't enough to attract Republicans, Biden will be pressured to find an alternative path for his infrastructure package.

Already, White House officials and Democrats in Congress are plotting out the possibilities, including breaking the plan into pieces. In one scenario, they would try to use the filibuster-proof reconciliation process — the vehicle for the American Rescue Plan Act — to push a more-progressive bill through Congress without GOP support.

But that would require Democrats to write a new budget resolution, and there's no guarantee that they would be able to get even the 50 votes they need in the Senate for a reconciliation bill. Trying to move ahead without any support from the GOP could result in a backlash from Manchin and other moderate Democrats in the Senate and House.

It may be that the House is forced to accept whatever the Senate can pass, which would surely be scaled back from the most ambitious plans of the White House and House Democrats. There isn't even enough Democratic support in the Senate for the House's approach, according to a Senate staffer. But a bill focused on bulking up funding for traditional infrastructure projects could win bipartisan backing in the Senate, the aide said.

The deadline for action is September, when the current authorization for the nation's surface-transportation laws expires. It is possible that the battle between House progressives and more conservative members of the Senate results in a simple extension of the current law for a year.

Biden's challenge is to thread the needle between the House and the Senate — and, at least for now, there's no straightforward way to do that.