Democrats should accept cuts to infrastructure spending

The ten-year plan's best chance for success will require sacrifices



September 21, 2021 - 10:00 AM

U.S. President Joe Biden is flanked by a bipartisan group of senators after meeting on an infrastructure deal. From left are Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.; Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.; Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/TNS)

The battle over Democrats’ ambitious spending plan is heating up in Congress, but one piece of the outcome is already clear: The $3.5 trillion price tag is being whittled down.

That will disappoint progressives, who see the budget plan as their best chance in a generation to enact big changes in domestic policy from universal pre-K and free community college to expanded Medicare and Medicaid and subsidies for clean energy.

But as a practical political matter, it’s a good thing for Democratic members of Congress who face tough races in 2022 — and for their party’s tenuous chances of retaining its razor-thin majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.

Here’s the Democrats’ problem: Most of the individual spending proposals in the plan are broadly popular among voters, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into solid support for the whole package.

A USA Today/Suffolk University poll last month found that the spending plan was supported by a bare majority, 52%, of Americans — and that was before Republicans began barraging the proposal with objections, aimed mostly at the price. (A “massive, reckless taxing and spending spree,” Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said last week.)

“There are things [in the plan] that voters think are valuable: nursing homes, child care, pre-K,” Republican pollster David Winston said. “But people question whether the country can do them at a reasonable cost.”

Some Democrats worry about the cost, too.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Jan. 27, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Photo by (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, has long said $3.5 trillion is too much — and in a 50-50 chamber, the plan can’t pass without his vote.

Manchin isn’t the only stumbling block. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has also objected to the price tag. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana says he won’t support any plan that includes deficit spending. Others have expressed qualms privately, especially over proposals for higher taxes.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a practiced vote-counter, injected a dose of reality into the debate last week: $3.5 trillion is a “starting point for negotiation,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the endpoint.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, trying to keep progressives in her caucus lined up behind the plan, has described it in expansive terms.

“It’s not incremental,” she brags. “It’s transformational.”

Wrong message, Democratic pollster David Shor, a former campaign aide to President Barack Obama, told me.

“I would ban that word,” he said. “Most people don’t want bold, inspirational change. They want bite-size things.”

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)Photo by Win McNamee – Getty Images – TNS

If Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York pass a plan even half the size of the $3.5 trillion that’s under debate, it would still be a titanic achievement. And less focus on that top-line number might allow Democrats to focus attention on parts of the plan that are both broadly popular and easy to understand.

“There are benefits to having easy-to-describe things that people like,” Shor argued.

He recently polled voters on a list of 193 policy priorities, including many in the budget plan.

Giving things to old people is a real political winner; they’re sympathetic and there are a lot of them. The political upside of child care is more limited. Relatively few people are parents at any given time.