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Biden Gets His Bipartisan Victory. Now the Hard Part.

The Democrats somehow convinced enough Republican senators to support a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Now they have to go to war to pass a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package.

Joe Biden pumps his fist
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The longest-running political joke in America is nearing its end. The Senate on Tuesday voted 69–30 in favor of the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (or, as it’s known by its less appetizing acronym, BIF), comfortably clearing the supermajority hurdle required by the filibuster. The bill will now return to the House of Representatives, where it could remain for some time: Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to wait until the Senate passes the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, which contains the party’s “human infrastructure” priorities, before taking up a vote on the BIF. Nevertheless, this process is now thought to be on a glide path, provided Democrats close ranks—which is often more challenging than it should be. 

For more than four years, “infrastructure week” has been a metaphor for the Trump administration’s hyperincompetence: Every time the White House attempted to push infrastructure policy atop the political agenda, the president overshadowed it with some blunder or controversy. But it was also a metaphor for a dysfunctional Congress: Infrastructure spending is broadly popular in both parties; it’s sensible and badly needed; and yet, in spite of all that, legislators still spent years spinning their wheels, failing to accomplish anything. 

The House may yet find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Moderate members of Congress and the Biden administration are desperate to pass something they can label as bipartisan, in the belief that doing so will greatly enhance their reelection campaigns and fulfill the premise of Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign: that he could restore a degree of sanity and bipartisan comity to Washington. Progressive members of the House have an opportunity, given the slim majority with which Democrats are working, to use their leverage to ensure the reconciliation package gets passed. 

Nevertheless, there is real momentum behind this bill: Enough members of Congress on both sides want a bipartisan bill. “There’s a joke around town that ‘infrastructure week’ has come and gone so many times that people are a little cynical whenever we talk about it,” Republican Senator Rob Portman said on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday. “Well, today is infrastructure day.” 

After a dicey summer—in which BIF seemed to die on several occasions—nothing has been able to derail its progress in recent weeks. The Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the bill noted that it would grow the deficit by $256 billion over 10 years; the moderates drafting the bill didn’t blink. There was a brief panic at the eleventh hour concerning cryptocurrency, which was quickly resolved. At the behest of Trump, freshman Tennessee Senator Bill Hagerty managed to gum up the process using procedural tricks but couldn’t thwart the effort on his own. In the end, the process was very typical of the Senate, where time passes slowly. 

To borrow a phrase from Biden, the infrastructure package is sort of a big fucking deal. It’s also a big fucking bill: At $1 trillion, it is the largest infrastructure package ever passed. It is a badly needed investment in physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and airports. It is also a vindication for both Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. For Biden, it bolsters the argument that he has brought back a degree of normality—if, it should be underlined, only a degree—to Washington. Whether or not voters actually care about bipartisanship is another question. (Whether these infrastructure adventures will be enough to offset the larger partisan fire raging on the right, which has turned fighting the pandemic into a total war, is how the press will likely judge Biden, fair or not.) There have been doubts about Schumer’s leadership, but the gamble he took by imposing a tight deadline appears to have paid off.  

But the infrastructure bill, despite its massive outlay, is also quite clearly not enough to truly ameliorate America’s myriad problems. There is not enough money in this bill to replace the nation’s lead pipes. The bill over-favors cars and highways at the expense of rail and public transit. Given the severity of the climate crisis and the existential threat it poses to humanity, this is a bill rooted in a dangerously outmoded way of thinking. The irony is inescapable: $1 trillion is simultaneously unthinkably large and insufficient to the task.  

If the Democrats successfully pass their $3.5 trillion reconciliation package without much whittling down, many of these concerns may be alleviated. That bill would go a long way toward fulfilling many of the promises that Democratic candidates made on the campaign trail, particularly when it comes to fighting climate change, providing free community college and universal pre-K, and (possibly) a measure of comprehensive immigration reform. Taken together, these two bills would amount to extraordinary and historic progress, possibly the largest since the 1930s. 

We are a long way from that moment. What we have, however, is a piece of legislation that sums up the Biden administration so far. The bipartisan infrastructure bill’s accomplishments are sizable, and there’s a promise of more to come; that it’s all moving forward against some considerably long odds is, in its own way, historic. And yet, the nagging sense remains that we’re going to end up falling short of what needs to be done to meet the interlocking crises of the moment—not just our decaying infrastructure and the climate crisis, but Covid-19 and the decline of American democracy. On Tuesday, the Senate took a big step forward. Hopefully it’ll take an even bigger step in the months to come.