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Patience, persistence pay off as Biden brings infrastructure package across finish line


WASHINGTON - Less than 10 months after taking office and several days after his party suffered a stinging defeat in the Virginia governors race, President Joe Biden achieved one of his goals: a bipartisan agreement that would make major investments in all 50 states for years to come.

Shortly before midnight on Friday, when the House passed the bill 228-206 with the backing of more than 10 Republicans, Biden's slumping political fortunes appeared to suddenly change. After seeing his poll numbers slide for weeks, he had suddenly fulfilled a core campaign promise and notched a major victory after months of legislative gridlock.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to suggest that we took a monumental step forward as a nation," Biden said Saturday morning at the White House, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris. "We did something long overdue, that has long been talked about in Washington, but never actually done."

Biden called the bill a "once in a generation" investment that would create millions of jobs and improve America's economic standing.

Biden said the measure included the most significant investment in roads and bridges in 70 years; the most significant investment in passenger rail in 50 years; and the most significant investment in public transit in history. Biden said he and Harris would have a formal signing ceremony for the measure "soon," citing the desire for those who worked on the legislation to be able to attend.

"For all you at home who feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that's changing so rapidly - this bill is for you," Biden said. "The vast majority of the thousands of jobs that will be created do not require a college degree."

"This is a blue collar blueprint to rebuild America, and it's long overdue."

Biden also said both the House and Senate would approve a separate climate and social spending package but did not specify a deadline. He also declined to comment on whether the centrist lawmakers who primarily supported the infrastructure package had committed to supporting that broader $2 trillion piece of legislation that has pitted centrist Democrats against liberals for months. Biden said he would not comment on private conversations.

Those hurdles await. On Saturday, he seemed to bask in the hurdle he had just cleared. The roughly $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill - which includes $550 billion in new spending - will soon go to his desk for signature, and he said Saturday he would invite Democrats and Republicans to a ceremony so they could have the moment together.

The Senate first passed the infrastructure bill in August with a 69-30 vote, a rare moment of bipartisanship, the type of partnership he had committed to during the 2020 campaign. The measure had languished in the House for several months as liberal lawmakers sought to use their leverage over the plan to advance Biden's larger climate and social spending bill, but Democrats reached a deal late Friday night to proceed.

The breakthrough followed a brutal election night for Democrats on Tuesday, and a summer in which the White House was roiled by the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and the surging coronavirus delta variant.

But with the bill's passage, Biden has achieved milestones that his predecessors only reached for. He pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, ending America's longest war, something President Donald Trump and President Barack Obama had hoped to do. And he will soon sign an infrastructure package that Trump had promised but never built the political coalition to achieve.

Once law, the infrastructure package would be the second major legislative achievement of Biden's presidency, following the March stimulus law. But unlike that measure, the infrastructure package enjoyed broad bipartisan support, winning even the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The stimulus plan was also aimed at addressing current problems in the U.S. economy, while the infrastructure plan is aimed at more lasting change.

Biden had tried to encourage a bipartisan approach to the bill for months, hoping it would serve as a model for other initiatives.

Some key authors of the bill, such as Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, sought to break through partisan gridlock and deliver a package that liberals and conservatives would support. They were able to design the bill in a way that won the backing of business groups and labor unions without financing everything through big tax increases.

Past Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to secure such infrastructure legislation despite growing calls for action from labor leaders, the business community, and experts alarmed by the nation's degrading public works systems. Trump had long talked about passing a massive infrastructure package, but his advisers never coalesced around a strategy and "Infrastructure Week" became a running joke among his aides. As those efforts languished, domestic infrastructure problems grew, with the United States eventually ranking behind a dozen other developed countries, raising concerns about safety and the nation's economic competitiveness.

"It's a game-changer for the country: The first comprehensive infrastructure plan we've had since Dwight D. Eisenhower created the interstate highway system" in the 1950s, said Ed Rendell, a Biden supporter and former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. "It will be a big shot in the arm."

Biden gave lawmakers space to cut the deal, hosting Democrats and Republicans to the White House over the summer as negotiations intensified. He sought to pay for the new projects with higher taxes. When lawmakers balked, he said he was open to other ideas. The bill that passed the Senate in August stayed intact over the past three months. But it remained dormant while House Democrats fought over other parts of their party's agenda. Biden's poll numbers slid over that span as the bill remained tied up and questions were raised about whether it would ever become law.

Americans would begin feeling the impact of the infrastructure legislation in two to three months, as funding gets prepared for projects to start, Biden said on Saturday.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN on Saturday that the money would quickly help fund projects for safety on roads as well as state highway and other transportation projects. He said funding for electric vehicle charging stations and other brand new programs created by the legislation could take longer.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was known for the "The New Deal" and Theodore Roosevelt was known for "The Square Deal" but Biden's agenda represents "The Big Deal," Buttigieg said.

"The work begins right away but it will go on for years to come," Buttigieg said.

Biden unveiled an approximately $2 trillion jobs plan this spring that became the core the infrastructure proposal, as well as another $2 trillion proposal focused on education, climate, and parts of the safety net that Democrats are still debating in Congress.

Major legislative obstacles to both packages slowed their progress, and for months Washington has been consumed by gridlock and tense negotiations that stretched on for days and generated negative publicity for the administration.

Many congressional aides were initially skeptical of Biden's insistence on a bipartisan infrastructure bill, believing that Republican lawmakers would never coalesce around a deal with the White House. And many Republicans did ultimately reject the measure, alleging it would amount to wasteful spending. But 19 Republicans joined 50 Democrats in backing the bill during the August vote. And more than 10 Republicans in the House helped shepherd the bill into law Friday night.

Many of the Republicans who supported the measure were motivated by a mixture of support for the underlying policies and a desire to show that they could work with Biden productively if the White House chose to pursue measures in a bipartisan way.

"Passing major legislation in good faith shows that Democrats don't need to get rid of getting the filibuster, because Republicans will operate in good faith when there's an area for compromise - that was part of the calculation for working with the president," said Donald Schneider, who served as chief economist to Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Nonpartisan estimates have found the legislation will add more than $250 billion to the deficit over 10 years, as it relies on a series of revenue gimmicks due to GOP aversion to raising taxes on the wealthy and the White House's refusal to raise taxes on Americans earning under $400,000 per year.

Liberal economists say the measure only partially addresses the nation's economic needs and that the White House must be committed to doing far more. Darrick Hamilton, an economist at the New School, said Biden's presidency would be "inadequate and incomplete" if he only passes the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Biden's plans to enact universal prekindergarten, measures to combat climate change, and other welfare expansions remain tied up in both the House and Senate, with no clear resolution at hand.

"If this is all we end up with, then it's a missed opportunity and more of the same," Hamilton said. "it's definitely not enough."

Still, the White House will welcome the passage of even part of their agenda. Biden's approval rating has slipped steadily for months as the administration was caught flat-footed by the resurgence of the pandemic, unexpected inflation, and crises abroad. But on Friday, White House aides saw reason to believe their fortunes could be turning - with signs of the virus receding, the economy posting its best jobs data in months on Friday, and progress emerging on long-stalled parts of the president's economic agenda.

Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, urged the administration to send senior officials to every significant infrastructure groundbreaking across the country next year. He said every congressional Democrats should hammer the following message: "President Trump could not do infrastructure for years with a Republican Congress, but President Biden delivered the biggest infrastructure package since Eisenhower."

Published : November 07, 2021

By : The Washington Post