By Sean Sullivan,
President Biden’s relentless focus on passing an infrastructure bill is increasingly dividing his party, as many Democrats fear that the drawn-out negotiations could derail the rest of Biden’s agenda and imperil what they see as the urgent need to protect voting rights.
Biden initially consolidated Democrats behind his legislative strategy, but that support is eroding amid Republican-led efforts to restrict voting in key states. Prominent Democrats warn that as talks drag on, Biden risks ending up without either an infrastructure bill or legislation to derail a Republican electoral advantage that could last a generation. Now, some are pressuring Biden to shift his focus and make voting rights his top priority.
“Time is running out for the administration to get big, significant things done,” said former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro. “Infrastructure deserves attention, but they need to be putting their energy and their attention more on voting rights right now than I believe they are.”
Democrats don’t have the votes to pass their marquee voting bill in the Senate. White House officials, having considered the obstacles they face on Capitol Hill, have focused on unilateral actions they can take as they face pressure to act. The Justice Department plans to make a significant announcement regarding voting rights as soon as Friday, according to senior administration officials. The officials declined to describe the planned announcement further.
Without saying so publicly, some White House officials do not adopt the do-or-die tone many Democrats use when they talk about the For the People Act, the party’s premier voting bill. One senior White House official working on voting rights said that even if that bill took effect, Republican legislatures would find workarounds. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they, like others interviewed for this story, were not authorized to speak on the record.
In the meantime, White House officials are committed to forging ahead on infrastructure, viewing it as a chance to deliver a transformative economic boost to a country hit hard by the pandemic. They believe that tackling such basics as roads, bridges and broadband is good politics, showing the government’s capacity to improve people’s lives. They also contend that a win on infrastructure will create momentum for other initiatives. Plus, unlike issues such as voting, they can pass infrastructure along party lines if needed, due to due to special budget rules.
The increasingly anxious split underlines competing worldviews in a party defending narrow majorities in the midterm elections. On one side are Democrats mostly determined to empower people of color and women by protecting the vote and delivering on a broad suite of promises. On the other are those who want to cement ties to suburban moderates with an emphasis on the economy and pragmatic achievements.
“The president made getting covid under control and getting the economy moving again his top priorities,” said Anita Dunn, a senior White House adviser. “That is what he has been focused on.” Dunn added that the White House has moved forward on other issues at the same time.
“It doesn’t mean we haven’t been focused on these other huge issues that are facing the nation,” Dunn said. She referenced the four crises Biden identified as candidate, including the need for racial justice. Critics of the Republican voting laws say they disproportionately affect voters of color.
Many Democrats are unmoved by such assurances. Anxieties escalated this week as infrastructure talks between Biden and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) collapsed, only to be immediately succeeded by a new set of negotiations, this time involving Biden and a bipartisan group that includes Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). That group of 10 senators said in a statement Thursday that it has reached an infrastructure agreement in principle, but declined to release details.
Some Democrats fear the back-and-forth could drag into the fall, at the expense of not only of voting rights but also other goals Democrats may have a narrow window to enact, such as police reform, gun control and climate regulations.
“The infrastructure bill — its status is up in the air, but its long-term prognosis is okay,” said Brian Fallon, a former Senate Democratic aide who heads the liberal group Demand Justice. “You have another patient that’s dying on the table, and that’s the one you need to triage.”
The debate among Democrats began almost as soon as Biden signed his $1.9 trillion covid-19 relief plan in early March, but it has risen to a crescendo now that the infrastructure talks are mired in cross-party negotiations that have yet to yield breakthroughs. Senate Democrats are now considering breaking the infrastructure package in two — potentially stretching out the process even further into the year.
But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden remains committed to pushing a bill through Congress this summer. Other Democrats strongly doubt that timetable can be achieved, however, and they worry it will be even harder to pass anything next year, with congressional elections looming in November.
If the bipartisan talks fall through and leave Democrats to pass an infrastructure package on their own, many then foresee a lengthy intraparty dispute over what to put in the final plan. Fallon, who spent years in government, said the reality of governing means that a party in power is “really only pushing one thing at any given time.”
For the first two months of Biden’s presidency, that was the sweeping covid-19 relief bill. Fallon said it was reasonable to tackle infrastructure next, but now he is alarmed at the plan’s slow progress combined with moves by Republicans in Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Texas to pass restrictive voting laws. He’s calling for the White House to redirect the power of the presidency to combat those efforts.
Fallon said Biden’s priorities are evident in his trips around the country to tout his infrastructure plan, punctuated by colorful activities such as driving an electric vehicle in Michigan. “He’s test-driving Ford F-150s. He’s not going to Selma to talk about voting rights,” Fallon said. “That needs to happen.”
Republicans see it differently, contending that Biden is trying to have it both ways by cramming his infrastructure bill with unrelated Democratic priorities.
“From the day the White House rolled out its first infrastructure plan in March, it’s been clear that the left’s definition of the word is evolving faster than even some Democrats can keep track,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor this week. “Medicaid expansion as infrastructure. Paid leave as infrastructure. And job-killing tax increases to hold the assortment together.”
But the infrastructure bill does not take on the Republican efforts to place new limits on voting. To combat the GOP push, most Democrats have rallied behind the For the People Act, which has passed the House. The legislation, which Biden supports, would set standards for early voting and vote-by-mail that could override some state Republican voting laws.
All but one Democratic senator has signed onto the bill. But Manchin, the lone holdout, said definitively this week he would not vote for the plan, nor would he support changing the Senate filibuster rules to enable Democrats to pass it with a simple majority rather than 60 votes.
Manchin’s comments, coming in a widely circulated op-ed, all but dashed hopes of passing the bill and prompted an uproar from many Democrats. And his words prompted differing views of what to do next. Some activists responded with pressure on Manchin, while several close Biden allies said that doing so would only backfire.
White House officials have refrained from public criticism of Manchin, a reflection of his pivotal role in the Washington landscape. In a Senate that is divided 50-50 between the parties, Manchin could single-handedly torpedo the infrastructure bill, prompting many in the White House to carefully mind what they say about him. After Biden recently appeared to accuse of Manchin of siding repeatedly with Republicans, Psaki sought to tamp down tensions.
White House officials said they are not taking voting rights any less seriously than infrastructure, pointing to recent remarks Biden made on the matter in Tulsa, his decision to tap Vice President Harris to work on the issue and his executive order expanding ballot access. But voting rights activists note that those moves haven’t prevented the GOP voting laws from taking effect.
The White House official working on voting rights expressed strong support for the For the People Act, even though the official felt it was not a panacea. The official said there are other means of fighting the Republican voting laws, through the courts or the executive branch. But the official said such efforts would be cumbersome and acknowledged none would be as effective as the legislation.
When it comes to infrastructure, in contrast, the president’s urgency has been in plain sight. Biden has traveled the country to promote his proposal. He’s enlisted Cabinet secretaries to help sell it. He’s holding Oval Office meetings where he negotiates directly on it. And he is expending significant political capital to get it across the finish line.
In the eyes of Biden’s allies, this is a good recipe for success in the midterms and beyond. “The White House is right to make infrastructure a priority,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is up for reelection. “It’s urgently time-sensitive because it’s so key to jobs and economic recovery, not to mention faith in the basic capacity of government to build bridges and roads.”
Infrastructure is also an appealing goal for the White House because its passage may not require a long-shot effort to end the filibuster. If all 50 Democratic senators stick together, they could pass it with no Republican support using a special budgetary maneuver. That is not true for measures such as the voting rights bill, which has no connection to the budget, making it much more difficult to shepherd into law.
But there is considerable disagreement even among Democratic infrastructure proponents about the best strategy for passage — or even what the bill should include. Biden’s desire to make good on his campaign promise of bipartisanship has added more tension to the talks, since Republicans are pressing him to pare back his plan in ways that many Democrats resist.
During a private Senate Democratic luncheon Tuesday, several senators expressed reservations about the prospect of a bipartisan infrastructure bill that is too narrow, according to an attendee. They warned that Democrats could get trapped into passing a measure that is too small to tackle the country’s needs, said the attendee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a sensitive conversation.
“An infrastructure package that goes light on climate and clean energy should not count on every Democratic vote,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) warned on Twitter.
Even if the bipartisan talks do not result in a deal, they are important to Manchin, who might not join a Democratic-only bill unless he believed a real effort was made to court Republicans, Democrats close to the process said.
Underlying Democrats’ anxieties are painful memories of the early months of the Obama administration, when they passed a stimulus bill that many now believe was too small, and talks on the Affordable Care Act dragged on without resulting in any GOP support.
Now some fear that if the party doesn’t move more swiftly, it could miss its chance to get an infrastructure bill passed. With no margin for error in the Senate, circumstances could shift at any moment, they say, noting that in 2010 Democrats unexpectedly lost a special Senate election, costing them a filibuster-proof majority and nearly dooming the ACA.
“During the Obama admin, folks thought we’d have a 60 Dem majority for a while. It lasted 4 months. Dems are burning precious time & impact,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted. “It’s a hustle. We need to move now.”
Others warn that even if Biden is ultimately successful on infrastructure, his victory could be short-lived without action on voting rights, given next year’s midterm elections.
“You can win a round, but it doesn’t mean you win the fight,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton.