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Biden's personal touch and GOP retirement: How the bipartisan infrastructure law beats the odds

United States President Joe Biden answers questions from reporters while Vice President Kamala Harris looks on in the East Room of the White House in Washington, United States, on August 10, 2021.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden's decades of Senate experience and personal belief in compromise were rewarded Tuesday when his $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill passed the Senate in a rare bipartisan approval vote.

The vote was the culmination of months of intense work by the White House and a bipartisan group of 10 Senators negotiating a dizzying series of compromises that maneuvered the bill through a deeply divided Senate.

In the end, 19 Republicans crossed the party lines on Tuesday and voted together with all 50 Democrats for massive new investments in roads, bridges, broadband access, public transportation and green energy.

The vote was a massive affirmation of Biden's belief that, despite its obscure rules, the Senate still essentially functions as it was intended – a belief that many Biden Democrats do not share.

However, for it to work, remarkable circumstances had to come together over the past few months, a perfect storm of politics and politics.

A career in the Senate pays off

At the center of all this was Biden himself, a career senator who, in the opinion of his advisors, is fully aware that the success of his first term as president is inextricably linked to the success of this infrastructure law.

During the spring and summer, Biden traveled across the country and extensively promoted the benefits of the Infrastructure Act on a series of presidential visits.

Back in Washington, Biden personally waded into the legislative drama at crucial moments.

In May and June, the President invited both Republican and Democratic senators at the White House to open, private meetings in the Oval Office to discuss what they needed to see in the bill to enlist their support.

President Joe Biden (C) and Vice President Kamala Harris (L) meet with Republican Senator from West Virginia Shelley Moore Capito (R) and Republican Senator Mike Crapo from Idaho (frontL) to pass an infrastructure bill in the Oval Office of the White House discuss in Washington, DC on May 13, 2021.

Nicholas Comb | AFP | Getty Images

Some senators needed extra hand-holding. Biden met at least three times in person with Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a centrist Democrat who insisted from the start that the bill was bipartisan and who later helped draft the eventual compromise legislation.

Sinema said after a meeting that she and the president had discussed, among other things, the importance of rural broadband expansion for their home state.

The bill, passed on Tuesday, provides $ 65 billion to expand broadband access to underserved communities.

The Bernie factor

But it wasn't just the centrists who wooed Biden.

In mid-July, the President met in the White House with progressive Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, his former rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.

At the time, Sanders, the chairman of the Senate's powerful Budgets Committee, was publicly calling for a much larger human infrastructure package than what most moderate Democrats they thought could support, somewhere in the range of $ 6 trillion, almost double the White House has considered.

Outside Washington, the mere mention of a US $ 6 trillion-only bill was enough to make some at-risk Democrats rethink whether to support the Infrastructure Act or the Reconciliation Act.

Biden had to come to terms with Sanders quickly to fend off any disagreements within the ranks.

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Sanders also wanted something specific from the White House: The President's support for a plan to expand Medicare coverage to dental, visual and hearing care.

The day after Sanders and Biden met on July 12, the Democrats unveiled their long-awaited human infrastructure plan.

Most of the plan was based on promises Biden made to voters during his 2020 presidential campaign. But there was a last-minute addition: Medicare coverage for dental, vision, and hearing aids.

After Tuesday's vote, Biden said there was a lesson to be learned from the way the infrastructure bill had been negotiated.

"The lesson we have learned is a willingness to speak and listen," he told reporters at the White House. "Listen. Call people in. And I think the lesson we learned is how to expose people to different views."

“That's why I sat with people from the start and listened to their positions. Some agree with my position and others disagree. I think it's a question of listening, it's part of democracy, ”said Biden.

Republican retirement

As Biden and his Democrats worked to unite behind the reduced infrastructure bill and its sister bill, the $ 3.5 trillion social safety net expansion, their task was made easier by the unique dynamic within the Republican faction.

One of them was an unusually large number of Republican resignations announced in the Senate this cycle.

Unlike the typical senator who is under pressure to win the support of his party base in order to survive a primary and then nationwide to be re-elected, retired senators do not face such pressure.

They are free to choose their consciences without worrying about whether those votes might harm them on election day.

Of the five Republican senators who plan to retire next year, three have crossed party lines to support the law.

Ohio's Rob Portman led the GOP negotiating team and did more than almost anyone, except for Biden, to get the deal across the line.

Two other retired senators, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Roy Blunt of Missouri, also backed the deal at key moments.

In mid-July, Burr signed the treaty, helping to answer the question of whether an agreement reached by a small cadre of senators could win over a broader coalition.

Blunt voted for the bill in its first major test, a procedural vote in late July, to open the formal debate on the bill.

There is still one Republican whose support for the deal probably more than any other Senator has done to ensure the bipartisan success of the bill: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell's motivation

In his tenure as the Senate Republican leader, McConnell has earned a reputation as a Democratic pet law grim reaper, always ready to ring the death bell.

But this time McConnell held back.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will meet with Senators Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Rob Portman, Bill Cassidy, and Lisa Murkowski in McConnell's office in the Capitol on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.

Stefani Reynolds | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Instead of blocking the law from the start, as many had expected it to do, McConnell quietly let negotiations go on, leaving the door open to a deal that he would give the Republicans the go-ahead to.

As the summer passed and the bill went through the Senate, the question of why McConnell didn't ruin the deal became something of a Washington parlor game.

Several factors are likely to play a role here.

One is that infrastructure is popular with the electorate, and McConnell knows it as well as anyone.

"He's a very pragmatic person. I think he knows that everyone wins when it's real hard infrastructure," said Senator Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, in a recent interview with the Associated Press.

Another boon to the law is the fact that residents of McConnell's home state of Kentucky are likely to derive undue benefits from its regulations, such as federal highway projects and expanded rural broadband funding.

Another element in favor of the bill is the larger Senate debate over the filibuster, the 60-vote threshold required to get most laws through the Chamber.

Biden has resisted increasing calls from progressive Democrats to get rid of the filibuster, which critics believe is an outdated and fundamentally unfair rule.

For McConnell, the passage of the infrastructure bill with more than 60 votes "is good proof that he can keep the filibuster and still dispose of meaningful, non-partisan legislation," Cramer told the AP.

"And at the end of the day, he has a constituency in Kentucky that is probably looking pretty positive."

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