WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans in Congress are making the politically brazen bet that it’s more advantageous to oppose President Joe Biden’s ambitious rebuild America agenda than to lend support for the costly $2.3 trillion undertaking for roads, bridges and other infrastructure investments.
Much the way Republicans provided no votes for the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, they plan to sit on the sidelines for this next big lift by the White House, forcing Democrats to take full ownership of the massive package of spending and corporate tax hikes that Biden wants approved over the summer. The tension could mount this week as Biden shows no signs adjusting to satisfy Republican leaders, instead appealing directly to their constituents for support.
“I think the Republicans' voters are going to have a lot to say about whether we get a lot of this done,” Biden told reporters at the White House.
That leaves Biden and congressional Republicans on a collision course, the outcome of which could define the parties and his presidency. The GOP strategy is reminiscent of the Obama-era blockade that helped sour voters on the Democratic president more than a decade ago. Then and now Republicans are intent on saddling Democrats with responsibility for all the taxes and spending to come, much as they did the 2009 rescue after the economic crisis, framing it as government overreach that piles on debt.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell set the defining tone for his party when he flatly declared last week he will fight Biden’s agenda “every step of the way.”
But it’s not at all certain the GOP playbook that worked more than a decade ago will produce the same political gains this time around. Voters appear tired of the partisan stalemate in Washington, live amid the country's run-down spots and signal they are initially supportive of Biden’s approach to governing, at least on the virus aid package.
Recent polling by The Associated Press-NORC Public Research Center found Americans have responded favorably to the president’s approach, with 73% approving of his handling of the pandemic. That includes about half of Republicans.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of Senate GOP leadership, said Sunday a smaller package of about $615 billion, or 30% of what Biden is proposing, could find bipartisan backing from Republicans if the White House found a way to pay for it without raising the corporate tax rate. He pointed to potential user fees on drivers and others.
"There’s an easy win here," Blunt said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Rather than shy from a new era of big government, Democratic leaders in Congress are embracing it, believing they can bypass the GOP blockade on Capitol Hill and make the case directly to Americans hungry for investments in homes, communities and livelihoods, especially as China and other rival countries make advancements.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi compared Biden’s plan to the far-reaching aims of presidents before him — from Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to build the Erie Canal to Teddy Roosevelt's designs on a national park system.
“Now, in this century, President Biden is undertaking something in the tradition of thinking big,” Pelosi said at a news conference.
Progressives want Biden to go even bigger. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Sunday he expects more funding to combat climate change and is pushing to include his own proposal to expand Medicare with dental, vision and hearing aid care for seniors.
“Now is the time to begin addressing our physical infrastructure and our human infrastructure,” Sanders said on CNN.
As Congress hunkers down to begin drafting the legislation for Biden's proposal, both parties will be put the test.
In the House, lawmakers will be invited to submit requests for projects in their home districts — roads and other infrastructure that could be “earmarks” eligible for federal funds. It's a way to entice bipartisan participation and ensure the funds are spent on agreed-upon needs.
Republicans will be forced to either participate or disengage, often with pressure from elected officials and other constituents clamoring for funds to upgrade sewers, airports and countless other infrastructure systems.
Peppered in Kentucky with questions about money that could be potentially flowing for home-state road, bridge and housing projects after the president unveiled his plan, McConnell batted them back one by one.
Biden’s package “is not going to get support from our side,” McConnell said.
Asked about the McConnell's comment, Biden smiled Friday while speaking to reporters at the White House and asked if the Republicans are arguing the country doesn't need the infrastructure — or if the Republicans “decide that we need it but they're not going to pay for it?”
Biden also pressed whether Republicans are opposed to cleaning up lead pipes in homes, schools and day care centers.
“What do you think would happen if they found out all the lead pipes were up at the Capitol?” Biden asked.
At the same time, Democrats and Republicans will be faced with the politically difficult vote of raising corporate taxes to pay for all the spending, bucking the business community that is largely against Biden's plan to permanently hike the rate corporations pay from 21% to 28%.
Both parties view it as an almost existential battle over competing political views: The Democrats who believe in the power of government to take the lead solving the nation's problems; the Republicans who put their faith in the private sector to drive solutions.
On Capitol Hill, it's also a battle over which party will control Congress.
After Barack Obama was elected in 2008, McConnell famously said his goal was to make him a one-term president. This time around the Republican leader appears to have a shorter-term goal at hand — he wants to win back the now evenly split 50-50 Senate.
“They’re so close to the majority in 2022, they can taste it,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist.
Democrats have Senate control because their party’s vice president, Kamala Harris, can cast a tie-breaking vote. In the House, the Democratic majority is holding on with just a handful of seats.
“They really don’t want to give Biden wins,” Conant said.
Democrats, uncertain about their political prospects, are taking no chances, legislating as if they are on borrowed time.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has set in motion a potential process that would allow Biden's package to advance without the typical 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster by Republicans. Instead, it could be approved with a simple 51-vote majority.
Pelosi has set a July 4 goal for House votes, but acknowledges that ambitious timeline may slip.
“The sooner we can get the legislation done, the sooner we can allocate the resources,” she said.
The goal, she said, was “to get the job done as soon as possible.”