Can compromise overcome partisan politics in infrastructure debate?

In search of support for his massive infrastructure proposal, President Biden faces a GOP right wing that would rather agitate than legislate.
bridge to Indian Island
The bridge to Indian Island, where about 430 Penobscot tribal members live. Photo by Greta Rybus.

It’s not a new “New Deal.” It’s not even “big government.”

But President Biden is trying to do something big with his infrastructure plan. Congressional Republicans oppose the scope of those plans.

What does “infrastructure” mean? Originally a French word, it translates as “substructure.”  Does that mean only the most basic supports of the national economy, as the Republicans argue, or many underlying elements that contribute to economic strength, as Biden sees it?

Former President Trump floated a $1 trillion infrastructure investment proposal that would have needed more revenues from taxes or debt. The GOP wasn’t in favor and the private sector did not come up with the cash. Nothing happened.

Roads and bridges have to be repaired. Everybody agrees, making it difficult to argue against an infrastructure plan. The GOP wants it narrowly focused. It’s almost as though if it isn’t made out of cement, it isn’t infrastructure. 

Keep it a small bill, they say, to limit the necessary small tax increase and limited growth in the national debt. Now that Trump, who liked debt, is gone, the Republicans have become deficit hawks. By spending less, they want to choke “big government.”

The 1930’s New Deal was big government because the federal government itself created jobs and hired people. It created and runs Social Security. Biden’s proposal would mostly send money to the private sector, just like former President Obama’s stimulus. That’s public investment, not big government.

The GOP may concede that Biden’s election victory entitles him to some action on infrastructure, but he must accept their version. That’s a Republican compromise. He suggests that if he gains support from average Republicans, that will be proof of compromise. And he must make some concessions to moderate Democrats who share some of the GOP’s restraint.

Biden promises to seek “good-faith negotiations” with the Republicans. He would if he could, but he can’t.  

Former GOP House Speaker John Boehner now explains why the dominant, right-wing Republicans spurn compromise. He wrote, “These guys wanted 100 percent every time. In fact, I don’t think that would satisfy them because they didn’t really want legislative victories. They wanted wedge issues and conspiracies and crusades.”

In Maine, something like that happened with this year’s supplemental budget. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, gave GOP legislators 99 percent of what they wanted on business taxes, but they demanded 100 percent. When she gave them that, they demanded even more.

In short, politics is not about shared responsibility for governing the country, but a struggle between the Democrats, who make proposals, and the anti-Democrats who oppose them, good or bad.   

Republicans attack Biden’s big plan, but only propose severely trimming it without promising to vote for the reduced version. There is no GOP counterproposal.

If both sides were serious about compromise, they could successfully negotiate a deal. The Republicans would have to accept more spending and the Democrats less. Because the Democrats control the government, they should get more out of the deal than the Republicans.

But that won’t happen. Boehner found that the GOP right wing does not want to legislate; it wants to agitate. Also, Biden can’t let Republicans use compromise talks to delay action, giving them time to promote opposition to his bill.

Biden probably believes the infrastructure bill plus the recently passed stimulus bill and planned healthcare reform legislation are the cornerstones of his presidency. With these bills, he can achieve most of what he set out to do. And his best chance for success comes now, in the first year of his presidency.

Biden was an adept legislator, so he knows he must make some concessions to moderate Democrats and at least talk with Republicans. His bill contains some spending on the progressive agenda to keep all Democrats on board, but he undoubtedly knew from the outset that he would have to drop parts of his proposal.

Yet some of his innovative items could prove popular with Republicans across the country. For example, his proposed broadband expansion could bring real benefit to Maine’s rural areas, traditional Republican strongholds.  

The GOP leaders lined up for broadband, but Republicans oppose clean energy proposals and even fixing 100-year-old water systems.

The Republicans can block Biden from getting the 60 Senate votes to end debate on his bill. One solution might be for Democrats to eliminate the filibuster, but Biden might not get swing Democrats to agree.

The more likely solution is budget “reconciliation.”  A simple majority can decide on spending and taxes under this procedure, used by both parties. Biden’s bill was drafted to permit it, and the Senate parliamentarian has issued a preliminary ruling allowing it.

Biden pits Republican governors and mayors, who could benefit from the bill, against the congressional GOP, largely still loyal to Trump. The Democrats could not only pass the bill, but gain from the split.

This scenario reveals that the 2022 congressional election campaign has begun.


Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil has been active in politics, journalism, publishing and energy consulting. A graduate of Bowdoin College, he has a master’s degree from the College of Europe (Belgium), and a Ph.D. from Columbia. He is an Army veteran. He was a top aide to U.S. Sen. George McGovern during his run for president. In Maine, he served as Commissioner of Business Regulation, Director of the Office of Energy Resources and the state’s first Public Advocate. He was a Harpswell selectman. He led the negotiations that created the unified New England power grid and chaired the national organization of state energy agencies. He reported for the Washington Post, Newsweek, London’s Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and WNET (New York). His weekly commentary has appeared in Maine newspapers since 2008. He has written or edited 16 books or collections ranging from the biography of Sears, Roebuck to the three-volume U.S. Supreme Court original jurisdiction decisions. His company, sold in 2005, was the largest publisher of state government regulatory codes.
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