WASHINGTON — “It’s a big effin’ deal.”
That was the verdict Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer delivered on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday, as the Biden administration and congressional Democrats celebrated the president’s signing of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.
Schumer was alluding, of course, to Biden’s famous remark to his then boss, President Barack Obama, in 2010, upon the signing of the Affordable Care Act. There would be few legislative victories for Democrats in the ensuing decade, as Republicans recaptured both chambers of Congress and then, in 2016, retook the White House as well.
The streak changed a little more than a week ago, with Congress ratifying a singularly ambitious infrastructure bill that includes hundreds of millions of dollars for roads and bridges, clean drinking water and broadband internet, among other priorities that Washington had long promised but chronically failed to address.
Accordingly, Monday witnessed something that, between the persistence of both the coronavirus pandemic and stalemate politics, has become a rarity in the nation’s capital: a celebration, and a bipartisan one to boot. A military band played as Democratic dignitaries, White House staffers, labor leaders and elected officials from across the nation gathered on the South Lawn, in an apparent attempt to observe public health guidance that recommends holding large gatherings outdoors to prevent spread of the coronavirus.
Still, there was little social distancing, with attendees hugging in celebration as they waited for the president on a bright, chilly afternoon. Among the many dignitaries present were the Rev. Al Sharpton, teachers' union leader Randi Weingarten, Democratic power broker John Podesta, outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago.
There were a few Republicans on hand too, reflecting the fact that the infrastructure bill did have some GOP support in both chambers of Congress. By contrast, a parallel social spending proposal, which the White House calls Build Back Better, does not, making its passage through Congress much more fraught.
One of those Republicans, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, was among the lawmakers to give remarks ahead of the signing. Even as he praised Biden, Portman said it was his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, who had “furthered the discussion” on infrastructure, even if he ultimately failed to articulate a coherent case to Congress. “Infrastructure Week” even became a meme used to indicate a perennial stalemate in Washington.
A former budget chief in the administration of President George W. Bush, and an elder statesman in the GOP today, Portman praised the infrastructure bill as “counterinflationary,” a point that Biden and his allies have strenuously made in the face of rising prices.
Another significant speaker was Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona Democrat whose support Biden needs to see through Build Back Better. He had been courting her and another holdout, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia; her prominent role at Monday’s ceremony was, potentially, an auspicious sign regarding her willingness to back the social spending proposal.
“The senators who negotiated this legislation show how to get things done,” she said.
By the time Biden came to the podium to speak, the sun had started to sink toward the horizon, and the temperature had noticeably dropped. But that seemed to do little to dispel the mood of celebration and relief. After months of arguing over budgetary items and complex parliamentary maneuvers, the Biden administration is eager to actually tell Americans what’s in the bill — namely, money for sorely needed programs.
“America is moving again,” the president said, “and your life is going to change for the better.”