Nothing seems to come easily in the hyper-partisanship that has so characterized Washington in recent decades. So, while the bipartisanship that burst out in the Senate this week with its approval of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill deserves well-earned applause, there’s a risk it will die out and turn to voter outrage if Speaker Nancy Pelosi and progressive Democrats hold it hostage in the House to their separate budget spending plan.
There’s been little question the nation’s infrastructure desperately needs attention, ranging from repair of existing roads and bridges to expanding high-speed Internet access to better preparing to meet the effects of accelerating climate change. New Hampshire certainly shares in those needs. The list of its bridges and roads needing upgrading or replacement is long. Broadband expansion was already key to the state’s ability to retain and attract businesses and workers, and the pandemic has shown it’s increasingly essential for school, health-care providers and governments. And the recent flooding in the area — while elsewhere the nation suffers unprecedented heat and wildfires — is one more instance of the violently fluctuating, extreme weather conditions ravaging the country with greater frequency.
The Senate’s infrastructure bill would begin to tackle many of these critical needs through new federal spending and renewal of existing programs that were set to expire. It would direct spending to important priorities, including shoring up roadways, airports and railroads, updating the nation’s power grid, cleaning up drinking water infrastructure, better preparing homes and communities for flooding, wildfires and other weather calamities, expanding surface transportation, enhancing cybersecurity and closing the digital divide.
What’s also notable about the bill is that it wasn’t derailed by partisan politics in the evenly divided Senate. It was negotiated over time with the Biden administration by a group of 22 senators from both parties — including important contributions from New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan — and earned votes from 19 Republicans, even including party leader Mitch McConnell. Senate passage needed everything our peculiar democratic process has long required for legislative sausage to be made in Washington: negotiation, understanding and compromise, not only across the aisle but with the personal engagement of President Biden.
Remarkably, bipartisan passage was attained despite the efforts to torpedo the bill by former President Trump, even though during his administration he called for, though never achieved, passage of an infrastructure bill. And an under-appreciated aspect of the bill’s Republican backing in the Senate is it signals growing bipartisan acceptance of the urgency of addressing climate change.
Distressing it is, then to hear Pelosi and the more progressive House Democrats threatening not to take up the bill unless the Senate first signs on to a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint that would include many party priorities well beyond traditional infrastructure needs. Those priorities — which include meeting such critical needs as a middle class tax cut and other tax revisions to address income inequality, supporting families and education through a child tax credit extension, paid family leave and broadening access to pre-K and community colleges, expanding Medicare health benefits and additional steps to combat climate change — are all important and should be addressed. But they carry a significant price tag and should not be enacted without an eye to the long-term threat posed by the ballooning federal debt.
Republicans in both houses have indicated no willingness to support the Democrats’ budget blueprint. Thus, it won’t get through the Senate unless all Democrats and the independents who caucus with them sign on to it, and key moderates such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin have already cited the pace of federal spending from the infrastructure bill and pandemic-related relief in expressing “serious concerns” about the measure’s $3.5 trillion cost. And in the House, Democrats must satisfy both their liberal and more moderate members to hang onto their very slim majority. That will mean Democrats negotiating amongst themselves and will take time, but that’s no reason to hold up the infrastructure bill.
The Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure measure is a good, even if imperfect, bill. To cite only one example, its $110 billion of spending on roads and bridges is only a start on tackling the nation’s $786 billion project backlog estimated by the American Society of Civil Engineers. But after too many years of Washington gridlock, voters want to see that their representatives can get beyond partisanship, and a good bill shouldn’t be held up by House Democrats in pursuit of the perfect. If it is, voters will surely express their outrage at the polls.