Nearly every day over the last week, Jon Tester insisted that the Senate’s latest bipartisan alliance had to seal an infrastructure deal before the next morning. After several whiffs, his nudges paid off.
With talks among his group and President Joe Biden moving along sluggishly, the burly Montana farmer had a plan in mind as he repeatedly urged his colleagues — publicly and privately — to wrap things up.
“You have to push positive vibes if you’re going to get a positive result,” Tester explained of his strategy. “You’ve got to talk about success if you’re going to achieve success.”
The Senate’s centrist core is suddenly on a hot streak, pushing forward the largest infrastructure proposal in U.S. history after helping clinch a $900 billion coronavirus package late last year. There’s still a chance their work goes down, but Thursday’s Biden endorsement set them apart from the failed array of congressional gangs that have tried in vain to make ambitious aisle-crossing laws.
It’s a reminder to Washington that in a 50-50 Senate, the ideological middle is empowered like never before.
“The question has always been, ‘What do we have to do to get it done?’" said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
And what was the answer? “Wine. The answer was wine. There was plenty.”
The bipartisan crew was already getting to work as Democrats passed their $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law in March. Sinema and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) began convening talks on a deal to boost roads, bridges and broadband but stayed mum as Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) kicked off infrastructure talks with Biden that eventually sputtered.
When those conversations ceased, Sinema, Portman, Tester and their latest Senate gang stepped in to fill the void.
"We started working on this months ago. It’s just, we didn’t talk about it,” Sinema said.
Of course, the group has kept the details of its plan closely held and at times grew paranoid about leaks. One draft was even watermarked with senators’ names to prevent publication of internal documents. And the exact details of their proposal still haven’t been publicly released beyond top line numbers.
Sinema and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) provided the wine for Wednesday’s pivotal meeting. While libations and late-night pizza helped grease the skids for the compromise, there was another factor: Republicans in the group offered more than $200 billion in added new spending than Capito and her group of GOP committee leaders were able to muster.
“Money. It’s just much more money,” Capito said.
The success of the ascendant Senate group could be critical to advancing major legislation beyond infrastructure, even as Democrats plan a party-line spending package that fills in the rest of Biden’s agenda on climate, paid leave and prescription drug reform.
The bipartisan group has also discussed a minimum wage increase from Sinema and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and potential immigration reform options. But Capito, a onetime member of the bipartisan confab, is unconvinced that its infrastructure breakthrough would bring good vibes to the evenly split Senate, where Biden’s party is insisting that its partisan spending package ride right alongside the bipartisan deal.
“We know what’s coming right after it. So, I think that just splinters everybody apart again,” she said.
Regardless of that skepticism and the legislative slog that lies ahead, Biden’s boost to the framework was a clear victory for the gang of about 20 Republican and Democratic senators. In interviews, members of the group attributed their success to the subject matter. While other bipartisan gangs have tried to reach deals on immigration, police conduct and fiscal policy, this group of centrists isn’t wading too deeply into controversy.
Instead it pursued a coronavirus relief package amid a surge of infections and after six months of delay, then turned to infrastructure — one of the few topics of consistent bipartisan interest in Congress. They also tried to make their proposal’s financing as painless as possible, seeking obscure funding methods that wouldn’t rev up conservatives or liberal critics.
“Infrastructure is popular. And it’s not just popular here on Capitol Hill, but people in the real world, like with Covid [relief], want us to do something,” said Portman, adding that the group worked on the proposal for three months, almost on a daily basis. “Let’s be honest. It’s easier than entitlements or health care.”
Portman noted that the bipartisan proposal also gave Democrats who weren’t as comfortable with the large price tag of a party-line bill “a place to land.”
It also helped that neither Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer nor Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to quash the bipartisan discussions — so far, at least. Schumer on Thursday endorsed the bipartisan framework, while McConnell said he is still in “listening mode.”
A changeover at the White House didn’t hurt either. Former President Donald Trump crippled bipartisan immigration talks in 2018 by stomping over Sen. Mike Rounds’ (R-S.D.) work with Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a sharp contrast to Biden’s behavior.
“We thought we had the [Trump] White House supporting us until the day before the vote. And in doing so, we did not necessarily achieve leadership support for our proposal,” Rounds recalled.
This time around, he said the Biden White House remained engaged in the infrastructure talks, and Senate Republicans and Democrats were given “the opportunity by leadership on both sides to continue the negotiations,” Rounds said.
What’s more, this is essentially a moment Biden’s presidency was built for.
He has deep relationships with Democratic and GOP senators, notably with moderates like Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). By contrast, Trump barely cultivated relationships with centrists in either party.
“The single greatest currency is keeping your word. Mitt Romney’s never broken his word to me. The senator from Alaska, the senator from Maine, they’ve never broken their word to me. They’re friends,” Biden said after meeting with the group of senators. “The people I was with today are people I trust. I don’t agree with them on everything, but I trust them."
The GOP members of the core group of 10 senators that met with Biden have recent experience bucking their party. Romney, Murkowski, Collins and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) all voted to convict Trump earlier this year for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, and Portman joined them in backing a commission to investigate that attack, over McConnell’s objections.
In the last few days, White House negotiators met with the group of senators on Capitol Hill, sometimes multiple times a day. It all culminated in Thursday’s meeting with the president.
After Biden was briefed on the state of the talks, he convened the negotiators at the White House. One attendee said the president suggested that their bipartisan effort was not only important domestically, but also a significant statement to allies and adversaries abroad in demonstrating that Democrats and Republicans could work together. Biden said that he didn’t get everything he wanted in the package, but that it should move forward anyway.
“He said, ‘I’m going to support your deal. I’m going to publicly back it. None of us got everything we wanted.’ But the president is like we are, in terms of the style of how we work,” Sinema said.
“When he was a senator, he was the same. He wanted to get things done.”
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