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The End of Infrastructure Week

Democrats will either make a grand bargain with Republicans or go it alone. Either way, a long-running joke in Washington may finally die.

Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, on a tour of a Chrysler plant in Detroit in March 2020.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden is expected to give a speech in Pittsburgh laying out the contours of his Build Back Better infrastructure plan. The details on what he’ll specifically propose remain light, but it’s been widely reported that the plan will cost $3 trillion, or maybe as much as $4 trillion. And White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said over the weekend that there are really two infrastructure packages in the works—one dedicated to spending on physical infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, and another, The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein reported on Monday, that would include provisions on the “care economy,” including paid leave and childcare benefits.

That second and likely more contentious bill might not take shape until next month, as the administration is clearly itching to get something passed relatively soon. So, too, is West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, one of the caucus’s pivotal voters on all matters, who has said repeatedly that he’s all for an ambitious, large-scale physical infrastructure plan and he supports reversing parts of the Trump tax cuts to do it. “As long as it’s paid for,” he told reporters last week. “This country needs to rebuild itself. We need to rebuild ourselves, and it has to be infrastructure.” This has always been the promise of infrastructure politics: Surely, politicians regularly insist, Washington can get its act together and do something about roads. This year, under Biden, Washington really might.

It should be said that a few moderate House Democrats are trying to pump the brakes. New Jersey’s Josh Gottheimer and New York’s Tom Suozzi have suggested they and other moderates might resist a new set of tax hikes and are pushing for the repeal of Donald Trump’s cap on state and local tax deductions, a move that would disproportionately benefit the affluent in high-tax states. But the administration is likely to have an easier time bringing Democrats in line than it will in getting a sizable number of Republicans on board with Biden’s proposals in the Senate. “The Trojan horse will be called infrastructure,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters last week. “Inside the Trojan horse will be all the tax increases. The only way I think they could pull that off would be through a reconciliation process.”

For all the talk over the last year about Republican populism and the implications of proposals like Mitt Romney’s child allowance, the GOP’s broad opposition to tax increases and public spending plainly hasn’t changed. But Democrats are still hoping to offer them an olive branch. If the infrastructure package is split into two bills, moderates like Manchin will insist on trying to get Republicans on board with the half focused on physical infrastructure.

This isn’t because Republican votes are needed to pass legislation, but because the symbolism of tackling infrastructure has always mattered more than the substance. Infrastructure proposals are less about building bridges than they are about bridging Washington’s divides—or at least suggesting that such a thing ought to be possible on matters as basic as, say, repairing potholes. There was a brief and quickly forgotten round of bipartisan self-congratulation after the passage of the $305 billion Fixing America’s Surface Transportation under Obama in 2015. After months of campaign blather about a plan in 2016, Trump tried making a similar breakthrough on the cheap; the infrastructure package that finally materialized in 2018 was worth a measly $200 billion in funds intended to spur public-private partnerships.

Conventional wisdom on fiscal policy has shifted enough that Biden can credibly propose much more. As they did with the American Rescue Plan, Democrats could simply shove a $3 trillion package through reconciliation, pat themselves on the back, and move on. But the self-imposed pressure—from pivotal Senate Democrats like Manchin as well as Biden himself—to reach a bipartisan deal on something is strong enough that Democrats will pursue one here any way they can, even if it means shrinking the package and, as the administration has already said it will, putting care economy spending on the back burner.

Whatever happens, it seems likely that we’re approaching the end of infrastructure as a political lodestar. Either the effort to win over Republicans in a major, legacy-making bipartisan deal finally succeeds and takes infrastructure off the table for the foreseeable future, or Democrats go it alone—as Senate Majority Leader Schumer is already preparing to do—and kill the notion of infrastructure as a transcendent, bipartisan issue for good.

It would be best, of course, if Democrats used reconciliation to pass a single large infrastructure bill that included both physical projects and care economy items, especially since the care economy items that would be marooned in a two-bill approach jibe with one of the major lessons we should take from the coronavirus pandemic: People are infrastructure, too. Keeping America in working order now means far more to voters than bringing shovels to shovel-ready construction projects. That said, most will obviously be happy to see Biden put a few trillion toward shovels anyhow, even if Republicans don’t join him.