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Workers with the Department of Public Works repave a section of 24th Avenue in San Francisco on on April 8, 2021.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The familiar flaw in the Republicans' infrastructure counteroffer

The Republican counteroffer on COVID relief made clear the party wasn't serious about the process. On infrastructure, the exact same thing is happening.


The developments are easy to forget a few months later, but the Democrats' expansive COVID relief package -- the American Relief Plan -- wasn't originally designed to be a one-sided proposal. There were several rounds of bipartisan talks, including some led by President Joe Biden directly, in the hopes of securing at least some support from congressional Republicans.

But in late January, as the legislation started to take shape, GOP senators presented the White House with an alternative COVID relief package -- which carried a roughly $600 billion price tag. Biden and his party were prepared to move forward with a $1.9 trillion package, and Republicans countered with an offer that invested less than a third of that amount.

In effect, GOP senators told Democrats, "If you slash the scope of your bill by more than two-thirds, we might consider supporting it."

As we've discussed, the trajectory of the debate shifted almost immediately. The counteroffer left little doubt that Senate Republicans weren't serious about striking a bipartisan deal, and Democrats moved forward with passing their more ambitious bill through the budget reconciliation process, making GOP opposition irrelevant.

It was hard not to wonder what might have happened if GOP senators had approached Biden with a more realistic proposal, opening the door to a real compromise. Instead, Republicans effectively removed themselves from the process -- the party seemed far more interested in Dr. Seuss than COVID relief -- making it easier for Democratic leaders to aim high with the bill they wanted to pass anyway.

Will this happen again on infrastructure? This Washington Post report suggests the answer is yes.

A group of moderate Senate Republicans on Wednesday signaled they are preparing to offer their own proposal to reform the nation's infrastructure, as GOP lawmakers seek to significantly pare back the roughly $2 trillion in new spending endorsed by President Biden. The Republican alternative is expected to be less than half the size of the White House's plan, according to party lawmakers, who in recent days have suggested its total price tag could ultimately cost between $600 billion and $800 billion.

Note, the president's proposal, at least in its current form, is $2.3 trillion. Some Republicans are apparently willing to consider a rival infrastructure plan, that would invest roughly a third as much.

It's like déjà vu all over again.

There are several relevant questions that do not yet have answers. We don't know, for example, how many Senate Republicans are involved in crafting this counteroffer, and whether they'd have the votes to overcome a filibuster. We also don't know how these GOP senators intend to pay for their modest proposal.

Perhaps most importantly, there appears to be some disagreement among these Republicans about how much to invest: Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told CNBC yesterday that a package between $600 billion and $800 billion would be in a "sweet spot," but Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said soon after that $800 billion "seems a little high."

But while the political world waits for these senators to work out their differences, let's not miss the forest for the trees: Democrats have the ability to pass an ambitious infrastructure/jobs plan on their own. They do not need any GOP votes.

Republicans -- members of the party that didn't win the elections -- nevertheless want the Democratic majority to discard the popular and effective American Jobs Plan, and replace it with a meager alternative, simply to make the GOP happy.

After all, the argument goes, bipartisan legislation is better than good legislation.

It's too soon to say how Democrats will respond to such a proposal -- the Republican blueprint doesn't yet exist in any formal sense -- but if recent history is any guide, Democratic leaders will soon realize that the GOP minority isn't serious about this process, either.