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Infrastructure deal is the start, not the end, of a tough process

Bipartisan breakthroughs offer some excitement, but getting infrastructure done will be like threading a needle while riding a bike on a bumpy road.

Two weeks ago, when President Biden and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) ended their unproductive infrastructure negotiations, the prospects for a bipartisan agreement on the issue appeared extremely unlikely. Nevertheless, there was a breakthrough of sorts yesterday.

There's a lot to unpack, so let's do a little Q&A.

So, there's a new bipartisan deal?

Yes. The White House and a group of 10 senators -- five Republicans and five Democrats -- reached an agreement on investments in physical infrastructure, with an emphasis on transit and rail networks, roads, and bridges.

How would it be paid for?

Some of the details are little murky, but broadly speaking the blueprint calls for redirecting unused COVID relief funds and improved enforcement of the tax laws. The plan does not raise taxes.

How big is the plan?

The package would spend $973 billion over five years, but of that total, $579 billion is new spending on top of what's known as the budget "baseline" -- which refers to funds that have already been allocated.

That sounds like a much smaller investment than President Biden initially proposed. What got left out?

Not surprisingly, quite a bit. The New York Times published a good overview, but among the key provisions that are not part of the bipartisan compromise are investments in combatting climate change and "human infrastructure" -- which includes everything from health care to child care to housing.

Aren't those important Democratic priorities?

Yes, but the bipartisan deal is only part of the broader strategy. Democrats are committed to advancing the new agreement alongside a larger, separate bill, which would pass by way of the budget reconciliation process and which would not require any Republican votes. It's this other bill that will ostensibly include investments in progressive priorities.

Will the bipartisan plan pass?

Maybe, but it won't be easy. Five Senate Republicans are apparently on board, though that won't be enough to overcome a GOP filibuster. That said, another five Republican senators helped shape the framework that was agreed to yesterday, and if they follow through, that would presumably put the legislation on track to succeed -- unless some Senate Democrats decide the package isn't good enough.

Will the other, more ambitious Democrats-only bill also pass?

For now, it's almost impossible to say with confidence, since no one knows what the other bill will include, and the intra-party negotiations haven't even begun in earnest. That said, if the reconciliation package doesn't pass, then the entire infrastructure initiative will fail.

Why?

Because Democratic leaders have linked the two inextricably. In fact, one of the most surprising developments yesterday was the consensus view among Democrats -- including Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, and even Sen. Joe Manchin -- that there will be two separate packages. Pelosi said she won't pass one without the other, and the president added soon after that he won't sign one without the other.

Are Republicans OK with that?

Not really. Some Senate GOP leaders have spent months criticizing such an approach, and it's likely that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell & Co. will push rank-and-file Republican members to oppose the current plan.

Why would Republicans go along with a bipartisan infrastructure deal knowing that Democrats are simultaneously advancing a larger sidecar filled with progressive priorities?

Many of them won't. In fact, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who helped negotiate the deal, has already denounced the two-step process and suggested he'll reject it on the floor. It's a reminder that there's a very real possibility that the Republican votes to pass the deal will not be there when it counts. That said, plenty of GOP senators seem to realize that if they derail the bipartisan package, it will open the door to Democrats at least trying to do their own thing via reconciliation, leaving Republicans on the sidelines.

So what happens now?

An extremely complex legislative process is about to take its initial steps. Politico had a good rundown on this today, but to briefly summarize, the new bipartisan compromise will now be put into bill form, with plans to bring it to the Senate floor in the coming weeks. At the same time, both the House and the Senate will take steps to advance a budget resolution -- a necessary step in the reconciliation process -- so that the second step can happen.

While the budget resolution takes shape, there will be a debate among progressive Democrats and conservative Democrats on the specific legislative instructions, which will in turn shape what's possible in the adjacent bill.

The White House has set a deadline for the end of September, when some existing surface transportation programs are scheduled to expire.

Getting this done will be like threading a needle while riding a bike on a bumpy road. Bipartisan breakthroughs offer a degree of political excitement, but to assume this will all work out is unwise. A lot can go wrong and the margins of error effectively do not exist.