The passage through the US Senate on Tuesday of a huge $1 trillion infrastructure bill -– roads, bridges, rail and water systems – with the support of 19 Republicans, is a remarkable victory for President Joe Biden. Like every president before him Biden pledged at inauguration to build bipartisan support for his legislative programme in Congress – unlike his predecessors he appears to have succeeded spectacularly, despite having to deal with an opposition still dominated by Trumpite ideologues. Biden has demonstrated again an energy and savvy politics that opponents had rubbished in their election claims that he was too old, and no more than an interim, seat-warming president.
But it is too early for the Democrats to crack open the champagne. Divisions in their own party may yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The bill must now go to the House where its narrow Democratic majority should normally ensure smooth passage to signature by the president. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, under pressure from the left in her party, had said she will only consider the legislation at the same time as a separate $3.5 trillion budget bill that contains new social programmes and climate measures, which Democrats intend –and will need – to pass without Republican support.
That Budget bill was passed in the Senate in the early hours of Wednesday morning in a 50-49 vote along party lines, with no Republican votes in favour.But it faces a difficult passage through the House.
Progressive Democrats in the House, angered by what they see as the prioritisation of infrastructure investment over social and environmental programmes, insist that they will not vote the infrastructure bill through if centrists and Republican allies cut what they see as overspending in the budget. The latter would attack poverty and expand the country’s social safety net in education, health care, child care and climate change.
It appears that either both bills will be passed, substantially intact, or both will fail.
The row reflects important differences within the Democrats dating back to Obama and Clinton days over whether to compromise with Republicans to get some of their programme through – $1 trillion in energy investment was cut to $100 billion in the Senate infrastructure bill, while $20 billion for “reconnecting” communities of colour was cut to $1 billion. Too much, says the left.
Biden has rolled sharply to the left breaking with prevailing economic orthodoxy in promoting strong state spending at a time of crisis, and is faring well in the polls as the economy enjoys a substantial “post-Covid” surge – jobs up 3 million since January. But, having successfully turned around the Covid vaccination programme, his most formidable hurdles are yet to come.