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Chuck Schumer's two-track infrastructure plan is a multitrillion-dollar wager

Addressing climate change, expanding health care access, and more are all on the line.
Photo illustration: Aerial view of red and blue colored highways crossing over each other.
There are a lot of twists and turns to go between now and when a bill passes.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

The good news is that it looks like there might — might — wind up being a bipartisan deal in the Senate on infrastructure in the coming weeks. A group of 11 Republicans have signed off on a framework for a bill that would cover only physical infrastructure, unlike President Joe Biden's much more sweeping proposal.

The bad news ... well, that depends on which side of the aisle you're sitting on. Both parties are gaming out what a deal would mean for the broader proposals that progressives want to enact — and coming to very different conclusions.

Let me be clear really quickly: A final deal hasn't been crafted yet, or anything close to it. The list of proposals that Politico snagged a copy of Wednesday includes $579 billion in new spending on upgrading airports, roads, bridges and other traditional infrastructure projects. (As a reminder, that's about 25 percent of the spending plan Biden originally pitched.) And the methods suggested to pay for the new spending were likewise, uh, lacking in detail.

While it's impressive that 11 GOP senators have signaled their support for the plan, enough to break a Republican filibuster with one vote to spare, it still would need the support of the entire Democratic caucus. And it's not clear that they're all on board yet, not even the moderates who are helping negotiate the proposal, which isn't as locked in as was initially reported.

Meanwhile, both parties' leaders are looking ahead to what comes after any deal is passed. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has made it clear that he means to keep working on a two-track plan: getting the best bipartisan deal possible and pushing through other parts of the Democrats' agenda on a party-line vote. The latter would come in the form of a reconciliation bill, which needs only 51 votes to pass, and it could include any parts of Biden's plan that get left out of a bipartisan deal.

The bet from Schumer right now is that if a deal comes with the votes to pass it, great.

Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told The Washington Post on Thursday that the potential $6 trillion reconciliation bill would ideally "deal with climate change, deal with the needs of children and their parents, to deal with the affordable housing crisis, to also make sure that the wealthiest people and largest corporations in this country start paying their fair share of taxes."

That broader bill would need to get the support of all 50 Democrats (and Vice President Kamala Harris to break the tie), so there's not much room for error. The bet from Schumer right now is that if a deal comes with the votes to pass it, great. It would ease the pressure on some of his more moderate members, who are clamoring for evidence to show their voters that bipartisanship isn't dead. Checking that box would then, in theory, make it easier for them to be able to support a partisan spending bill involving proposals like increasing investments in elder care and boosting taxes on corporations.

Meanwhile, the GOP leadership is thinking the opposite — that passing the bipartisan bill would sap the will of moderate Democrats to pass a larger reconciliation package:

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) surmised Monday that if a bipartisan package comes to fruition, the only remaining ways for Democrats to pay for a second bill on social spending programs are tax increases — too toxic to pursue. Democrats can pass a spending bill with only Democratic votes, but they need all 50 of their members to be on board.

“It’ll be awful hard to get those moderate Democrats to be for that,” Thune said. “The stars are kind of lining up for an infrastructure bill. And if you do do something bipartisan on that, then I think doing something partisan on reconciliation — in some ways, with certain Democrats — it gets a lot harder.”

As you might have noticed, both of these things can't be true. A bipartisan bill can't make it both more and less likely that moderates would back the more progressive parts of Biden's American Jobs Plan.

So there are now four likely outcomes to these negotiations: 1) The talks result in a bipartisan deal that passes with Democrats' support; a reconciliation bill filled with progressive priorities then passes with all Democratic votes. 2) The talks collapse; Democrats move forward with a reconciliation bill negotiated only among themselves. 3) A bipartisan deal passes; the reconciliation bill is trimmed considerably to win moderate votes. 4) A bipartisan deal fails for lack of progressive Democratic votes; a reconciliation bill also fails to include progressive priorities.

Politically, the GOP can live with any of these options. Either just enough Republicans vote for a bipartisan deal that over a decade of obstructionism gets somehow forgotten in favor of headlines about a newly cooperative party or they get to point to their opposition to Democratic excesses.

Meanwhile, Democrats have to consider how badly they can afford to disappoint the left to appease moderates and the stigma of failing to advance legislation with control of both Congress and the White House.

And, much more important, the repercussions of failing to pass a bill with the investments that are needed would extend way beyond politics. The drama and gamesmanship are exciting and at times even fun to watch — but these debates are about more than abstract numbers on a page and who won or lost. The choices Democrats make in these talks and after will affect whether hundreds of thousands more people have access to health care, whether we wait another decade to begin countering the effects of climate change, whether Americans have the support they need to both work and raise their families.

I wish I could tell you exactly how this is going to play out. The House and the Senate will have to vote on their budget resolutions next month, so there's at least a deadline for when we'll know.

Until then, Schumer and the Republicans will place their bets, and any attempt to see the outcome will be, as Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told Politico, "crystal ball s---."