Inside Senate Republicans' dismissal of Trump as he tries to torpedo Biden's infrastructure bill from the sidelines

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Former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Getty
  • Senate Republicans are on the verge of giving Biden his first major bipartisan victory by voting for the infrastructure bill.

  • But Trump has railed against the agreement, arguing it gives Democrats "a big and beautiful win."

  • Sen. Bill Cassidy says he's unsure what Trump objects to. "Somehow, he says it's a win for [Biden.] I view it as a win for the American people."

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

President Joe Biden is on the verge of scoring a major win where his predecessor Donald Trump repeatedly failed.

Over the past week, the Senate has taken up Biden's $1 trillion infrastructure bill. It's cleared two major test votes already with some Republican support. Lawmakers have approved seven amendments so far and the legislation could clear the upper chamber this weekend, possibly even with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's blessing.

If passed, it would pour fresh federal spending into repairing roads, bridges, and highways. It would also enhance broadband connections for many Americans, replace lead pipes, and strengthen climate resiliency.

But Trump is enraged at the steady progress Republicans have made without him on infrastructure, which he never pulled off despite numerous promises to do so. He's railed against the agreement from the sidelines and threatened to support primary challengers for the GOP senators who give Democrats "a big and beautiful win on infrastructure."

In the evenly divided Senate, at least 10 Republicans must join all 50 Senate Democrats for the bill to reach Biden's desk. It looks like enough of them are on the verge of breaking with Trump and approving the bill in a big test of his grip on GOP policy in Congress. 

"The former president has much more influence on cultural issues than on economic issues with his supporters," Brian Riedl, a budget expert at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, told Insider. "Senate Republicans don't see Trump's criticism as make or break, and their reelection will hinge on factors much more important than what a former president thinks of an infrastructure bill."

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas suggested Trump's hold on policy was rather loose. "I think he still has some substantial influence among the Republican base, I don't know how that translates into policy," he told Insider.

'The stars have aligned for both parties' interests'

john thune
Sen. John Thune. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Trump employed a scorched-earth brand of politics throughout his presidency, and often undercut his own efforts. In 2019, he abruptly pulled out of infrastructure talks with Democrats as they started investigating his administration. "Infrastructure week" soon became a running gag referring to his repeated failures at passing a new bill.

Biden, on the other hand, is applying the opposite approach. He's had an unyielding faith in bipartisanship and repeatedly sought compromise with Republicans. That hasn't always panned out - Biden muscled through a $1.9 trillion stimulus law earlier this year without any GOP support once negotiations collapsed.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranked Senate Republican, serves as a barometer of where many rank-and-file Republicans stand. Thune pushed back against Trump's recent criticisms, saying he believed each side's political interests have aligned recently. Infrastructure has long been something popular with voters.

"I disagree with former President Trump on that," he told Insider. "You want to celebrate successes no matter when they happen. It just so happened the stars aligned right now for both sides to come together on this."

Video: Comparing the House and Senate tax plans

"As is always the case up here, timing is everything," he said.

Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, one of the GOP negotiators, shared a similar view. He pointed back to Trump's previous support for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, only a fraction of which was paid for. Republicans are insisting any plan doesn't grow the national debt, and the bipartisan Senate gang that negotiated the deal argue it's fully financed.

"I'm not sure [about] the nature of his objections," Cassidy said in an interview with Insider, referring to Trump. "Somehow, he says it's a win for [Biden.] I view it as a win for the American people."

A Senate Republican aide familiar with the negotiations argued Trump's attacks are ringing hollow in the Senate's corridors. "Senators aren't taking Trump's threats seriously because his rhetoric is void of substance," the GOP aide said. "It's clear he's only making noise because he doesn't want Biden to get a win, and the Republican faces of this effort are people he does not like."

The aide added that "if Trump were smart, he would remind people he called for legislation very similar to this bill, and try to take credit for its passage, rather than threatening to primary members for supporting it."

Still, key Republicans aren't taking any chances. Sen. Rob Portman, another GOP negotiator, has asked Trump to get behind the deal, Politico reported.

Some Republicans could buckle under Trump's attacks

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks at a press conference alongside Senate Republicans. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas was one of 20 senators from both parties who pledged to support the infrastructure bill, but the Trump-backed candidate is up for reelection next year, and some Trump-allied groups are running ads against his early endorsement. Moran voted against it twice last month, though his vote won't be pivotal to the bill's success.

Republicans are already eyeing the next stage of the infrastructure fight: The $3.5 trillion Democratic spending bill. That package will have to go through reconciliation, a legislative pathway for bills to be approved with 51 votes in the Senate instead of the usual 60. It is very unlikely to attract a single Republican vote.

McConnell is already trying to turn up the heat by threatening to withhold GOP support for suspending or raising the debt limit in the fall. That would force Democrats to do it on their own. Congressional inaction or gridlock could mean a devastating default.

"Let me make something perfectly clear: if they don't need or want our input, they won't get our help," McConnell said Thursday. "They won't get our help with the debt limit increase that these reckless plans will require."

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