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‘Time is running out’: Democrats split over Biden’s relentless focus on infrastructure

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/10/2021 Sean Sullivan, Paul Kane
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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.”

The waters were roiled further Friday as more details emerged of a five-year, nearly $1 trillion infrastructure deal offered by a bipartisan group of 10 senators. At the same time, the Justice Department announced it would double the size of its voting rights team, scrutinize states’ new voting restrictions and post-election audits for violations, and protect election workers from threats. However, neither move is likely to fully satisfy ardent advocates of the two approaches.

Without saying so publicly, some White House officials do not adopt the do-or-die tone that 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 the person, like others interviewed for this story, was 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 because of 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 referred to four crises that Biden identified as a candidate, including a need for racial justice. Critics of the voting laws adopted in Republican-controlled states say they disproportionately affect voters of color.

Many Democrats are unmoved by White House 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 the new set of negotiations involving the bipartisan group of 10.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would “go look at” the proposed agreement, but he added that “we continue to proceed on two tracks,” simultaneously pursuing a bipartisan bill and a Democrats-only measure.

Some Democrats fear that the back-and-forth could drag into the fall, at the expense not only of voting rights but also of other goals Democrats might 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.”

As pressure built in the party, Attorney General Merrick Garland signaled Friday that the Justice Department not only would scrutinize voting laws for signs of discrimination, but also would apply oversight to post-election audits.

Supporters of former president Donald Trump have spearheaded audits in various states despite no evidence of fraud. “Where we see violations, we will not hesitate to act,” Garland said.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson said his group was “encouraged by the new tone on voting rights set by the Biden-Harris administration” but warned that the battle “is far from over.”

As Garland spoke, the infrastructure talks remained fluid. Many Senate Democrats think that a bipartisan deal will never be reached, and that the prolonged bipartisan talks are only delaying the inevitable fallback to party-line legislation.

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 that it will be even harder to pass anything next year, with congressional elections looming in November.

Many liberals initially accepted Biden’s push for a big infrastructure package as a follow-up to his covid-19 relief bill. But now they are alarmed at the plan’s slow progress, combined with aggressive moves by Republicans in Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Texas to pass restrictive voting laws, and they want the White House to redirect the power of the presidency to combat those efforts.

[After blocking voting bill, Texas Democrats call on Congress to do more]

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.”

On the other hand, some liberal Democrats say they will oppose a deal with Republicans if it fails to address issues such as climate change, illustrating how hard a bipartisan deal will be in the evenly divided Senate.

“From my perspective — no climate, no deal,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). “I’m not voting for an infrastructure bill that does not have climate.” He also rejected the idea of passing a more traditional bill that focuses on roads and bridges with the promise that a climate-centered bill would come later.

Markey recalled a climate bill passed by the House in 2009 that died in the Senate due to Republican opposition. “We now have a second chance at passing a piece of climate legislation that matches the scope and the scale of the problem,” Markey said. “We can’t allow Republican dilatory tactics to block consideration of a climate bill.”

The prospects for a voting rights bill are if anything even more dire. All but one Democratic senator has signed on to 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.

But Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the lone holdout, said definitively this week that 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.

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, Manchin could single-handedly torpedo the infrastructure bill, prompting many in the White House to carefully mind what they say about him.

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 thought 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 that 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.

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 thinks a real effort has been 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 think 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.

Joe Manchin wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Capitol Hill this week. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Capitol Hill this week.
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