Longtime Political Winner Infrastructure No Longer a Sure Bet

  • Project-laden measures so far lack broad bipartisan support
  • More ribbon-cutting ceremonies may still bring election gains

Ambitious infrastructure bills laden with earmarks used to be a formula for a surefire bipartisan win. Congressional leaders in both parties viewed the project-filled bounty as campaign fodder certain to help their rank-and-file members win re-election and boost their own standing with voters.

But President Joe Biden’s gamble that a $2 trillion-plus plan to boost everything from roads and bridges to schools and housing would bring everyone on board so far hasn’t paid off.

As Biden prepares to meet Thursday with a bipartisan group of senators to reach a compromise and as the prospect of more spending through a reconciliation package remains on the horizon, leaders and vulnerable incumbents are weighing how their choices will play in the 2022 midterm elections when control of the evenly divided Senate is on the line.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who’s among the most endangered Republicans and didn’t sign on to aid the negotiations, said in an interview that rising debt may be more important to Wisconsin voters than funding projects.

“If these were normal times and we weren’t running those massive deficits, I could see borrowing to invest in infrastructure,” Johnson said. “But these aren’t normal times and I would hope voters are more concerned about the extent we have mortgaged our children’s future.”

Photographer: Greg Nash/The Hill/Bloomberg
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said voters may be more concerned about rising deficits than more spending on infrastructure.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D) also faces a stiff challenge next year in holding on to the Arizona seat he won in a special election in 2020. But Kelly, who’s being targeted by GOP-aligned groups for backing Biden’s expansive domestic agenda, recently joined the talks. His move echoes ads in which he promised to work on bipartisan solutions.

“We have not invested in our future in this country for decades,” Kelly said in an interview. “And if we want a growing economy we need better infrastructure in Arizona.”

Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who faces a tough re-election in 2022, says infrastructure investment is needed.

Inflation Concern

Democrats point to surveys showing broad public support for infrastructure spending. The plan drew the backing of 68% of Americans in a Monmouth University poll conducted June 9-14. While most expressed some concern that Biden’s spending plans could lead to an increase in inflation, it didn’t undercut overall support for the infrastructure funding, the pollsters said. Another poll conducted in June by a Democratic firm, Navigator Research, found 70% backed the infrastructure spending, including 47% of Republicans.

But Republican polling circulating among Senate offices suggests support can diminish depending on how the debate is framed.

An April survey of likely voters by the GS Strategy Group amid a push by the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors to fight changes to the 2017 tax law also found majority support for infrastructure plans but showed there’s a “persuadable audience” predisposed to believe there’s too much government waste. Support declines when the focus shifts to the plan’s high cost and proposed tax hikes, the firm said.

Democratic strategist Jim Manley said the “smart politics” for some Republicans is to run against what they may characterize as “a pork-laden, Green New Deal-type infrastructure bill.”

Brian Walsh, a Republican consultant, said the infrastructure plans could be “a very hard vote” for moderate Democrats as well.

“Their view is that, ‘Well, we’re going to deliver a lot of money that communities will be thankful for,’” he said. “And the opposing view is that you’re paying for it with massive tax hikes on job creators who are just coming out of a pandemic.”

‘Everybody Wants It’

Separate from the larger infrastructure package, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) plans to bring to the floor in July a $303.5 billion transportation reauthorization bill (S. 1931) that was drafted by the Environment and Public Works Committee and has bipartisan support.

Even if that measure is changed to reflect a deal with the White House, former EPW Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in an interview that it’s a mistake for Republicans to oppose transportation funding.

“It’s more popular than military spending because everybody wants it,” said Inhofe, who is now ranking member of the Armed Services Committee. “It’s not a very smart thing to oppose.”

The breadth of support for massive transportation spending will be tested the week of June 28 when House Democratic leaders bring to the floor the project-laden $547 billion transportation bill (H.R. 3684) that Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) muscled through his committee without Republican support.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters he’s confident of having “overwhelming Democratic unity” and even some GOP buy-in.

Delivering the Bacon

Former Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), who headed the House Democratic caucus before losing his seat in a 2018 primary to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said some moderate Blue Dogs and newly elected Democrats had concerns about Biden’s original plans to raise corporate taxes to pay for the infrastructure boost.

But Crowley said in an interview that Democrats have an appetite to finally deliver with “that personal touch” that was missing from pandemic relief packages.

“I don’t want to say this is a panacea for any person politically, but it does lend itself to actually delivering the bacon,” said Crowley, who’s now an adviser at Squire Patton Boggs.

Former Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said changing the 2017 tax act is a “hard line” for Republicans but predicted the legislation will attract GOP support if leaders can find acceptable ways to pay for it. Shuster, and even more so his father, former Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), were known on Capitol Hill for shepherding transportation legislation and directing highway spending to their central Pennsylvania district.

Lawmakers in the toughest seats will benefit in their races immediately and when there are ribbon-cutting ceremonies and “shovels in the ground” in 2022, said the younger Shuster, who’s also at Squire Patton Boggs.

“It doesn’t damage anybody politically if you get a good infrastructure bill,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com