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Washington’s bipartisan infrastructure talks are either mired in a stalemate or on the cusp of a breakthrough, depending on the precise moment you’re reading this.
But as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell keeps his cards close to his vest about a preferred outcome, some Republican operatives are already coming to a humdrum conclusion about the political implications of the year’s dominant legislative initiative.
They don’t think it’ll factor much in voters’ minds or drastically reshape their arguments for the midterm elections -- regardless of how it turns out. It may explain why McConnell is taking a hands-off approach, allowing his Senate allies ample time to negotiate, without committing to or condemning work on a bill that is now crawling into its fourth month and could scramble this August’s congressional recess.
“I don’t think it’ll matter a whole lot,” said Cam Savage, an Indiana-based GOP consultant. “Republicans are in a can’t-lose situation.”
Whether or not Democrats are able to lock down 10 Republican senators for $579 billion in new spending for roads, transit and water projects, the GOP is still going to blast the majority party as a bunch of out-of-control spenders come campaign season.
And even if there are some Republican fingerprints on this piece of targeted spending, there’s close to no chance of any GOPer signing on to the larger $3.5 trillion social spending package that Democrats have vowed to take up immediately after they get through infrastructure.
Kevin McLaughlin, the previous executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said even if infrastructure passes, GOP candidates will have the ability to label it as a “Trojan horse” for even more spending.
“I think a candidate who has an ability to say, ‘We had a deal, and these guys wanted to add on $3 trillion, $6 trillion, whatever is now, on social infrastructure …’ Those suburban voters who went for [President Joe] Biden don’t like that,” McLaughlin said.
While even McConnell has noted the importance of updating the bricks and mortar that underpin the country, few political strategists believe that money for a new port or more accessible broadband service galvanizes voters.
“I don’t think it matters a lot politically,” said Dan Bayens, a Kentucky-based Republican media consultant. “I just don’t see it animating voters either way. Infrastructure is too bland.”
A national survey by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service in June found that registered voters listed political division as the top issue facing the country, followed by government spending and voting rights.
For Republicans, government spending, and a byproduct -- inflation -- will be a primary driver in their pitch to return to power in Congress, just as the ability to cast ballots will consume Democratic messaging in what’s expected to be a challenging midterm election.
On Tuesday, McConnell delivered another torrid speech blasting Democrats’ “reckless, multi-trillion-dollar taxing and spending spree,” focusing largely on environmental initiatives they are advocating for, like electric cars and the Green New Deal. A word he completely omitted from his remarks: infrastructure.
When the NRSC mentions infrastructure, it largely does so to drive a wedge between mainstream and liberal Democrats. The headlines in their press releases don’t focus as much on the components Republicans might support as much as they highlight the gripes of the left of the spending being too stingy.
“As Senate Republicans work to get a bipartisan infrastructure bill passed, far-Left socialists on the other side of the Capitol are throwing a public tantrum,” ripped one recent release. “Bipartisan is a dirty word among the Socialist Squad, and they’re not being shy about letting people know,” says another.
This tactic leaves just enough room for Republicans to sign on to the bill, or pin blame on progressives if talks blow up and Democrats decide to proceed alone.
It also subtly acknowledges that infrastructure -- broadly defined as building new things for Americans who need them -- is popular, and rarely polarizing. A survey released last week by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that 83% of Americans, including 79% of Republicans, favor more money for roads, bridges and ports.
“Let’s say they pass something. Those Republicans are going to have their cake and eat it too. They’ll be able to say it was mostly paid for without tax increases and also go out and say, ‘But we stopped this other boondoggle of spending the far left is trying to shove down our throats,’” explained Savage.”I don’t think there’s a political price they pay for the thing not coming to a fruition.”
What’s a sure bet is that if the bipartisan push ultimately fails and Democrats pass a spending package without a Republican vote, McConnell and other Republicans will lay it at the feet of President Biden, saying he failed to live up to his campaign promises of moderation and unity.
Former President Donald Trump unleashed a statement this week urging Republicans to vote against an infrastructure deal that McConnell only wants to prove he can “work with the Radical Left Democrats.”
But there are more substantive arguments percolating.
Some more ideological conservative operatives believe there’s a risk for any Republican who signs on to a significant spending effort, given the widespread distrust of Congress to appropriate wisely and with transparency.
Tim Phillips, an early Tea Party movement organizer who has been traveling the country all spring and summer as president of the fiscally conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, said Republicans could end up owning a piece of the blame for inflation next year.
“The concern and frustration over government spending and specifically these Republicans signing onto this bipartisan bill is ratcheting up steadily,” he said. “They’re going to further erode their credibility with base voters...You spend another trillion dollars, it’s harder to say this inflation is all on those guys.”