Will infrastructure finally bury Biden's bipartisanship promise?

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President Biden.
President Biden. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Tuesday marks the sixth-month anniversary of President Biden's inauguration, and the bipartisan infrastructure deal that he has spent half his presidency pursuing still isn't coming together. Republicans have balked at a provision to buck up IRS tax enforcement in order to help pay for the package, but Senate Democrats are planning to move ahead Wenesday with the first procedural votes on the still-incomplete bill. Unsurprisingly, GOP senators are promising that effort will fail.

The president is frustrated.

"We should be united on one thing — passage of the bipartisan infrastructure framework, which we shook hands on," Biden said Monday. "We shook hands on it."

His lament is understandable, even if this moment was foreseeable from the beginning. The bipartisan infrastructure bill has never been about the infrastructure, really — most of the particulars could be passed as part of a Democrats-only reconciliation package, if needed. Which means the bill is really about the bipartisanship part. The big question, then, is what the bill's failure would mean for Biden's whole approach to governance.

After all, Biden has spent a good chunk of both his presidential campaign and his presidency publicly wagering that the two parties can still work together for the national good, if only somebody in leadership tries hard enough and acts reasonable enough. "Our politics has gotten too ugly, too mean, too divisive," Biden told Iowa primary voters last year. "With this president [Trump] out of the way, we in fact can begin to change the dynamic." That was always wrong — the polarization trends are bigger and tougher to crack than Biden's ability to handshake his way out of them — but it felt good. When that promise is gone, what does this president have left?

Without the imperative to work for bipartisan cooperation, Biden and Democrats could probably govern in more straightforward fashion while they still have majorities in both houses of Congress — though with the filibuster still in place, there is only so much they can do. But if the bipartisan infrastructure bill does indeed fail, one of the animating purposes of Biden's presidency will have taken a big hit.

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