Work on infrastructure bill starts, but big hazards ahead
For now centrist lawmakers and Republicans say they are working on a bipartisan plan for infrastructure pushed by President Biden. The devil is in the details, however, with many not holding their breath until Republicans come around fully. It is also expected that they will balk at the massive 3.5 trillion second plan pushed by the Biden administration and strongly supported by progressive lawmakers. | AP

WASHINGTON—The ancient proverb “There is many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip” could easily apply to the $974 billion 5-year infrastructure bill senators finally started to debate on July 30.

The “cup,” of course, is the bill itself: $974 billion for “hard” infrastructure such as mass transit and railroads, highways and bridges, broadband extension to the entire country, airport updating, replacing lead-lined water mains nationwide, and upgrading the electric grid so there are no-more Texas-type power blackouts. The 67-32 bipartisan vote opened the way for debate and votes on the measure.

And the “lip” is Democratic President Joe Biden’s desk. He and his staff have been lobbying hard for the deal.

Now come the “slips”:

  • Half of the legislation will be paid for, so to speak, by diverting unused money Congress originally OKd to help people out of the coronavirus-caused economic crash.
  • That diversion is what the GOP and its corporate contributors and special interests demand. It also leaves everybody else hanging.

Never mind that the Delta variant of the virus is on the move nationwide and that an internal Centers for Disease Control memo, obtained by the Washington Post, shows even vaccinated people are more susceptible than realized. If they get sick, it’ll be like a mild flu. But being asymptomatic, they’ll be able to pass the virus on.

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said over and over that she won’t bring up the “hard” infrastructure bill unless and until the Senate approves the companion $3.5 trillion “reconciliation” bill. She’s still saying it.

“I won’t put it (the hard infrastructure bill) on the floor until we have. . .the rest of the initiative,” Pelosi told interviewer George  Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week early in the week.

That’s the measure that would include “people” projects such as universal and extended paid family and medical leave, more money for child care centers and better pay for child care workers, retrofitting the nation’s schools to make them “green” and safer against the virus for kids, teachers and staff, and other pro-environment priorities.

  • That’s also the legislation that hasn’t hit the Senate floor yet. And when it does, it’ll need the votes of all 48 Democrats plus both independents to pass, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie in the 50-50 chamber.

But guess who’s balking? The GOP and, of course, a key “moderate”: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. She says $3.5 trillion is too much. She also refuses to say what she would cut. Lead GOP bargainer Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, calls the $3.5 trillion measure “reckless” and a Democratic wish list. Others are even more caustic. Every Republican is expected to oppose it.

  • As a Democratic bargainer in the so-called “bipartisan” infrastructure deal, Sinema–and the others—agreed to a GOP cut of $30 billion, much of it from the mass transit-rail total. Other dealmakers dumped a Biden- and labor-backed public-private National Infrastructure Bank, which would use federal “seed money” to attract private dollars for vital projects.
  • If Sinema gets her way, House progressives walk. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was blunt about it when she found out about Sinema’s “too big” characterization.

“Good luck tanking your own party’s investment on childcare, climate action, and infrastructure while presuming you’ll survive a three-vote House margin—especially after choosing to exclude members of color from negotiations and calling that a ‘bipartisan accomplishment,'” AOC tweeted.

“If it wasn’t for the House progressives, we’d probably be stuck” just with the “small,” hard-money-projects measure, she later added.

“Without a reconciliation package that meets this moment, I’m a ‘no’ on this bipartisan (infrastructure) deal,” added first-year Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., a fellow “Squad” member with Ocasio-Cortez.

  • But to even vote on “reconciliation”—the bigger bill—Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., has to put it together in a budget resolution, first. He vows he will and that it’ll get 50 votes to debate it. “Next week we’re going to have 50 votes to pass a budget resolution,” he told TV interviewers. “And at the end of the day, I believe that we will have a reconciliation package that will provide enormous support for working families in this country.”

Sinema has promised to vote for debate, if not for reconciliation itself.

  • Organized labor backs both the “hard project” infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion reconciliation, but emphases are different, depending on the union.

For example, home care workers with the Service Employees Union stepped up their nationwide media Care Is Essential campaign to promote “federal investment in home care jobs to meet the growing crisis in care.” That investment would be part of reconciliation.

“Workers, care consumers and supporters across the nation have come together to demand Congress pass a bold investment in care to jumpstart an equitable recovery, especially for the majority-women-of-color workforce that cares for our nation,” the union said.

By contrast, North America’s Building Trades and the Laborers both plumped for “hard project” infrastructure bill, with nary a word about reconciliation.

“Tell Congress: Pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework,” the Laborers urged in a petition on their website. “Our nation should have world-class infrastructure built by skilled union workers. Instead, we have a system in a state of failure in deep need of renewed investment. Our roads, bridges, and transit and water systems need investment. Tell Congress it’s urgent they act on the deal.”

  • Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten was one of the few who, in reacting to the Senate vote, pushed both measures.

“This infrastructure framework—which would provide every American with access to reliable high-speed internet and make the largest federal investment in public transit, bridges and clean drinking water—is another step in making good” on Biden’s promise to “Build Back Better,” she said.

“This plan has the potential to create and maintain thousands of well-paying union jobs, modernize and improve our economy, and allow more Americans access to the basic opportunities that help them thrive.”

Then she promptly pivoted to pressing for the $3.5 trillion plan. It would “address the historic neglect facing our schools by incorporating the Reopen And Rebuild America’s Schools Act in the next investment package, and passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act so the voices of working people are heard and our nation’s economy works for all of us.”

  • Which brings up one final “slip” Weingarten didn’t mention. Contrary to what Weingarten said, the reconciliation bill does not include the entire PRO Act, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka admits. Since reconciliation bills are only supposed to deal with money matters, the PRO Act’s higher fines on labor law-breakers and its other penalties are in. The rest of the measure isn’t.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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