When Joe Biden was running for president last year, many Democrats privately rolled their eyes at his vow to work with Republicans to bring bipartisanship back to Washington.
Sure, such nostalgia was effective campaign rhetoric. But there was no way it would actually happen.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, Republicans worked relentlessly to block his agenda – even at the height of the global financial crisis. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell revelled in his status as a “grim reaper” who killed off left-wing legislation.
And as savvy pundits have pointed out, it makes no political sense for Republicans to hand Biden a bipartisan victory during his early days in office. Much smarter to obstruct his agenda, demoralise Democrats and win back control of Congress at the midterm elections next year.
But on Wednesday (AEST) a funny thing happened in the US Capitol: Republican and Democratic senators came together to approve a massive infrastructure spending plan championed by Biden.
Even McConnell, the grim reaper himself, voted for the $US1.2 trillion ($1.6 trillion) package alongside 18 other Republicans.
The bill will now go to the Democrat-controlled House, where it is expected to pass, before heading to Biden’s desk to be signed.
That will be a significant political victory for Biden, and vindication for his unfashionable insistence that bipartisanship is not dead in America.
And it is an embarrassing defeat for Donald Trump, who has spent recent months demanding Republicans block the deal and threatening to work to end the political careers of those who voted for it.
“Don’t do it Republicans – patriots will never forget!” Trump wrote in a recent statement. “If this deal happens, lots of primaries will be coming your way!”
Never mind that Trump himself favoured a massive investment in infrastructure as president, but was unable to make it happen.
Biden, by contrast, put in the hard work necessary to get it done. He met several times with Republicans in the White House to negotiate the details of the bill and was willing to jettison a billion dollars in spending and planned corporate tax increases to get them on board.
The bill includes more than $US110 billion to repair and replace roads, bridges and highways, and over $US60 billion to revitalise the nation’s rail system.
There’s also over $US100 billion to fix the US water supply, including by replacing every lead pipe in the country, and to modernise the country’s power grid. There’s also billions of dollars for broadband and electric vehicle charging stations.
This is the type of spending that is overwhelmingly popular with Americans across the ideological spectrum.
A poll by the Associated Press last week showed that 83 per cent of Americans, including 79 per cent of Republicans, support increased funding for roads, bridges and ports.
For all Trump’s bluster, Republican senators know they face little chance of political pain for supporting such mainstream proposals.
And Democrats, if all goes to plan, will have sacrificed little by trimming Biden’s original proposal.
Most of the extra infrastructure spending they wanted, including on green energy, is contained in a separate, sweeping $US3.5 trillion piece of legislation that is currently being considered by the Senate.
That bill would establish a universal pre-school program, free community college, and the country’s first government-funded paid parental leave scheme.
Progressive icon Bernie Sanders says the bill, which Democrats can push through on a party-line basis, would be “the most consequential piece of legislation passed since the Great Depression”.
The significance of the bipartisan infrastructure vote should not be overstated.
Spending on roads and railways is one thing; the culture war debates that animate right- and left-wing partisans are another. Republicans are not about to jump on board and support Democratic proposals on immigration, voting rights or gun control.
And Trump remains the Republican Party’s figurehead and possible 2024 presidential nominee, even if he lost this particular battle.
But the Senate demonstrated that the US Congress, for all its dysfunction, can still do its job. That’s no small thing. [SOURCE]