Biden and his Cabinet members argue that infrastructure undergirds every pillar of American life, from education to energy, and health care to manufacturing and that the need for investment is gargantuan. But the President’s audacity and his generous interpretation of a policy area that Washington has traditionally seen as confined mostly to transportation projects is already sparking a huge clash with his foes on Capitol Hill. After all, one person’s infrastructure plan is another’s left-wing power grab.
In the crucial early exchanges that can define a bill of this size, Republicans sense a chance to portray Biden’s second massive political gamble, following the passage of a $1.9 trillion Covid rescue bill, as the act of tax hiking “socialists” — a message they hope to ride to the recapture of Congress in midterm elections in November 2022.
In red states at least, infrastructure is still what it’s always been.
“When people think about infrastructure, they’re thinking about roads, bridges, ports and airports,” Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt said on ABC News “This Week” on Sunday. “That’s a very small part of what they’re calling an infrastructure package that does so much more than infrastructure.”
The outcome of this duel over definition will likely help dictate the fate of Biden’s presidency and legacy, but also stands to have lasting consequences for the US economy and society as he seeks to boost workers and the middle class.
One country, two visions
The disconnect over infrastructure exposes the huge gulf in perceptions between Republicans and Democrats over the state of the country as the post-pandemic era approaches. It highlights a seminal moment in American politics with a new Democratic President eying a window in history to carve a record that will stand comparison with the great reforming Democrats of the 20th Century. And most fundamentally, the battle over the shape and size of Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure bill announced last week fleshes out the perennial fault line between conservatives and liberals on the role of American government.
The White House will likely have months to try to finesse the package to make it more palatable to the likes of Manchin, a hugely influential figure given the importance of his vote in a 50-50 Senate. But his early trial balloon shows that with Republican votes unlikely for the bill, the action to watch will be inside the Democratic caucus in the Senate itself.
Biden, who was forced to intervene to get Manchin on board to pass the Covid relief bill, has yet to react to the West Virginian’s comment. But as he arrived back from Camp David Monday, the President gave a clear signal that he understands the early debate to define the infrastructure bill could be critical.
“It’s kind of interesting that when the Republicans put forward an infrastructure plan, they thought everything from broadband to dealing to other things was … infrastructure. Now they’re saying that only a small portion of what I’m talking about is infrastructure,” Biden said. “So it’s interesting how their definition has changed but they know we need it.”
Biden’s old Republican Senate sparring partner, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has already made clear the breadth of the bill means it will get no Republican support as conservatives try to define it as a Trojan horse measure concealing a myriad of long-standing liberal priorities.
Biden’s Cabinet is pushing back hard against the perception that the measure is too wide, too expensive and overturns traditional perceptions of infrastructure.
“At the end of the day, I don’t want us to get lost in the semantics,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
‘We need to update understanding of infrastructure’
The infrastructure bill does not completely trash orthodoxy. It hands a windfall to Amtrak that has the often neglected railroad network dreaming of new routes in new states. It overhauls leaden water pipes and upgrades airports and ports where delays cost the economy billions in lost productivity.
A modern interpretation of the term “infrastructure” might also admit the billions the President proposes to spend on making broadband universal for the entire nation — a step that will boost the economy, especially in rural areas.
But a sticking point for critics of the bill is the $400 billion that Biden plans to splash on home and community health care that would overhaul social care in the United States.
“We absolutely do need to update our understanding of infrastructure,” said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
“Infrastructure at its core is that which enables commerce and economic activity. What could be more fundamental than care giving services? If you think about it — even the people who are building bridges and tunnels need care — for their kids, for their aging parents.”
The alliance says home health care is becoming even more of an economic necessity as the aging of the Baby Boomer generation risks creating an economic drag that better care could counter by allowing more younger family caregivers to stay in the workforce. Making home care jobs more attractive and better paid could result in an important economic benefit in itself. It would also allow more elderly citizens avoid care homes that proved to be incubators of disease during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, Republicans adopt an opposite philosophical point of view, regarding the use of government power across such a wide arena as antithetical to growth, innovation and the market principles they see as underwriting decades of US prosperity. Conservatives see subsidies for new generation energy tech firms as an un-American approach to picking losers and winners in a free market.
The fight for the proposal in many ways is Biden’s next big power play in the latest struggle between unbridled capitalism and periods of building the liberal social safety net. That dynamic defined US politics through the eras of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, and could now underwrite another presidency.