Hill staffers expect infrastructure bill to pass, but little else

Latest Capitol Insiders Survey shows Democratic aides not optimistic about filibuster changing either, with Manchin standing firm

A scaled-back infrastructure bill, like the one West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III and other senators are negotiating, is what most Hill aides expect will ultimately pass.  (Photos by Tom Williams/Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call; Composition by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
A scaled-back infrastructure bill, like the one West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III and other senators are negotiating, is what most Hill aides expect will ultimately pass. (Photos by Tom Williams/Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call; Composition by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 14, 2021 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden’s agenda is shrinking. According to CQ Roll Call’s latest Capitol Insiders Survey of congressional staffers, the big question remains how large an infrastructure bill Congress will give him to sign. Aides are doubtful there will be much of significance beyond it.

Biden has already more than halved his initial proposal for a $2.3 trillion bill to build roads and bridges, but also expand electric vehicle charging stations, climate research and care for senior citizens. Most of the 106 aides who responded to CQ Roll Call’s poll said that they expected it would pass but that Congress would scale it back still further. 

CQ Roll Call emailed the staffers on June 7 and they had till June 9 to respond. Of those who did, 60 were Republicans, 44 Democrats, and two independents.

Both Republicans and Democrats agreed that Congress will pass an infrastructure bill, and most of them expect it will be close to the $1 trillion plan Biden offered to the Republicans’ negotiator, West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, on June 2. 

Nearly 6 in 10 of the Democratic respondents said they expected Congress would pass a slightly scaled-back bill, with the rest expecting passage with more significant downsizing. 

Among Republican aides, close to half of those who took the survey said Biden would get his $1 trillion or something close to it, with about the same predicting Congress would scale it back further or refuse to pass it at all.

Biden, on June 8, said he was halting negotiations with Capito. While Capito had offered a plan with about $300 billion in new spending, Republicans wanted to repurpose money Congress appropriated earlier this year and last for COVID-19 relief, boost gasoline taxes and impose a new fee on electric vehicles, while Biden remains committed to new spending paid for with taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

Still, bipartisan negotiations continue under the auspices of a group of Senate moderates, including Democrats Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio and Mitt Romney of Utah. Those senators said they had reached an agreement on $579 billion in new infrastructure spending on June 10.

In that sense, the infrastructure negotiations are tracking last December’s $900 billion COVID-19 relief law, which was incorporated into a year-end omnibus after moderates rescued faltering negotiations between President Donald Trump, Senate Republicans and House Democrats.

The bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, which was also a player in the December negotiations, released a plan on June 9 with $762 billion in new spending without specifying how it would be paid for.

If those efforts gain traction, it seems likely that the Senate moderates will split the difference between Biden’s offer and Capito’s and lobby progressives in the Democratic caucus, and Biden, to swallow it.

Progressives railed against Sinema and Manchin at a Senate Democratic lunch on June 8 and indicated they preferred to drop the negotiations and write a bill under budget reconciliation rules that Democrats can pass on a simple majority and carry without GOP votes. New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich tweeted that the bipartisan group shouldn’t expect all Democrats to back a bill that skimps on climate change and clean energy provisions.

Loading the player...

But in a Senate divided 50-50, the Democrats on the left are still stuck because no bill will advance without the votes of Sinema and Manchin and something, the respondents to CQ Roll Call’s poll agreed, will win out over nothing.

A parallel debate is now consuming the Republican caucus. Senate Minority Whip John Thune said he didn’t believe a bipartisan bill that goes far beyond Capito’s offer would get the needed 10 Republican votes to break a filibuster. But Republicans know that alienating Manchin could open the floodgates to legislation they find more objectionable.

Democratic wish list 

In a Jan. 6 op-ed for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Manchin asserted anew that his vote is the most important in Congress.

In closing the door on even weakening the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to proceed with legislation, Manchin narrowed Biden’s agenda significantly.

Democrats thought that they could persuade him to weaken it if he witnessed repeated GOP filibusters and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer began that effort with votes on May 28 to create a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, and on June 8, on legislation to combat pay discrepancies between men and women that all Republicans opposed.

Schumer plans more such votes this month, including on Democrats’ signature bill to overhaul state elections laws and the campaign finance system, known as S 1. But the congressional staffers who took CQ Roll Call’s poll are skeptical it will make any difference.

Not a single Democratic aide thought senators would eliminate the legislative filibuster, and just 28 percent of them said they thought the Senate would weaken it, while 59 percent said the Senate would preserve it. Meanwhile, Republicans are confident Manchin will stand his ground, with 84 percent expecting the filibuster rule will remain.

Given that, aides of both parties now doubt Democrats can enact their elections bill (passed in the House as HR 1). Unlike an infrastructure bill, Democrats cannot use budget reconciliation rules to pass it, and 69 percent of the Democratic respondents and 95 percent of the Republican ones said it’s dead.

The same problem stands in the way of other Democratic priorities. Three in five of the aides don’t believe Congress will pass an immigration bill with fewer than 3 in 10 expecting it will.

The aides see the odds of a gun control measure as even worse, with 73 percent saying it’s somewhat or very unlikely and only 17 percent of the view that it’s somewhat or very likely. On June 9, Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn said his talks on guns with Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy had broken down, while the Democratic lead on immigration, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, is not near an agreement with Republicans.

The aides who took CQ Roll Call’s poll did say they expected their Democratic and Republican bosses to come to terms on a bill to overhaul police practices. But that now looks less likely, as Republicans and groups representing law enforcement officers have rejected draft language.

Biden’s second big ask, a $1.8 trillion bill to expand child care, make community college free, increase paid leave for workers and boost taxes on the wealthy, also faces tough sledding.

More than half of the aides think Congress will not pass it. A narrow Democratic plurality is holding out hope it will, but with slight to significant reductions in its scope.

Schumer said on June 8 that he now foresees the possibility of a two-track process for Biden’s big bills this year, with both a bipartisan offering and a reconciliation measure.

If Biden’s American Families Plan has any hope, it will likely need to move this year. As last year’s debates over coronavirus relief demonstrated, Democratic moderates grow skittish about government largesse as Election Day approaches. Recall that 14 House Democrats voted “no” last May on their party’s $3 trillion coronavirus relief proposal. When Speaker Nancy Pelosi brought up a reduced $2.2 trillion version in October, the number of defectors grew to 18. 

Several of those Democrats lost their seats, but Pelosi’s majority also shrunk and she now has only three votes to spare if Republicans unite in opposition. As Manchin has made plain, Schumer faces the same challenge in a 50-50 Senate.