Feb 23, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: Bernie ready to roll on roads

Illustration of a road being kicked and rolled out like a red carpet.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Senate Democrats are readying to pass President Biden’s infrastructure package through the budget reconciliation process, a recognition they're unlikely to get much Republican support for a potential $2 trillion package.

Driving the news: Sen. Bernie Sanders told Axios on Tuesday he’s consulted with the White House about how to prepare for the next round of spending, and he's ready to do it immediately via reconciliation — a process he controls as chair of the Senate Budget Committee.

  • “If I have anything to say about it, it will, and I think the president wants it to happen," Sanders (I-Vt.) said during an interview in the Capitol.
  • Reconciliation requires only a simple 51-vote majority, rather than the usual 60 votes to pass major legislation.
  • A White House spokesperson declined to comment.

Why it matters: The current $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus package, the first of the Democrats' three potential chances to use reconciliation, could be the easiest.

  • The bill enjoys widespread bipartisan support: not only do voters back it, but most political leaders agree it's urgently needed, with many existing coronavirus relief benefits expiring in mid-March.
  • The next bill — infrastructure — would fundamentally refigure the economy, and similar to previous efforts, Biden will face obstacles paying for it.
  • Passing another massive piece of legislation via reconciliation also could undermine the new president's unity pledge, giving Republicans an easy campaign theme ahead of the 2022 midterms.

What they're saying: "We need to address the economic crisis facing working families, and a second reconciliation bill will go a long way to beginning that process," Sanders said.

  • Sanders vowed to move on it “as soon as possible” and shot down the notion that Congress needs to space out legislation passed via reconciliation.
  • “We don’t have to wait a few more months … right?” the senator said, gesturing to an aide he referenced as "Mr. Reconciliation."
  • “We can go as quickly as possible,” the aide answered.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told Axios he also anticipates Democrats will need to do infrastructure via reconciliation.

  • "I hope not ... but President Biden ran on a very bold agenda around infrastructure and reinvesting in our country," he said.
  • Coons added that he doesn't think it can happen immediately, and he expects there will be time between stimulus and infrastructure in which Biden makes an effort to work with Republicans on other legislation.
  • He cited gun violence and opioids as possible examples.

The other side: Republicans dismiss the infrastructure bill as cover for a "radical" climate change proposal and question how the government can afford it.

  • Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, told Axios: "It's actually going to turn into more of a climate change proposal that really placates their radical environmentalists. I think that that's where you're going to see the corporate tax raises.”
  • Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said: "Where's that money coming from? We might as well, you know, throw away infrastructure, throw away rural broadband, because after they spend all this money on the COVID package, there's not going to be anything left."
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