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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 problem(s) with the Republicans' offer on infrastructure

The GOP is effectively telling Dems they should slash their infrastructure ambitions by three-quarters, just to make the opposition party happy.


President Joe Biden held his latest bipartisan infrastructure meeting with lawmakers this week, and he wrapped up the White House discussion by asking GOP lawmakers to craft a counterproposal to the American Jobs Plan by mid-May.

As we discussed soon after, the point was to create some kind of framework for negotiations: There can be no search for compromise between one party's blueprint and another party's blank sheet of paper. The presidential request also put Republicans on the spot, creating a put-up-or-shut-up challenge: If GOP lawmakers are serious about infrastructure, they should be able to write up some kind of plan, including a realistic price tag and a clear funding mechanism.

As it turns out, Republicans didn't need to wait until mid-May. As NBC News reported, yesterday they unveiled a $568 billion package, to be invested over the next five years.

In total, the package calls for $299 billion for roads and bridges, $65 billion for broadband infrastructure, $61 billion for public transit systems, $35 billion for drinking water and wastewater, $44 billion for airports, $20 billion for rail systems, $17 billion for ports and inland waterways, $14 billion for water storage and $13 billion for safety purposes.... Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., called the infrastructure proposal "the most robust plan that we ever put forward as Republicans."

I don't know if the senator's claim is entirely accurate -- in inflation-adjusted terms, Republicans supported some pretty robust infrastructure initiatives in the 19th century -- but it's certainly among the more ambitious infrastructure proposals GOP lawmakers have unveiled in recently memory.

That wasn't the only encouraging element of the Republican plan. While GOP officials initially argued that only investments in things such as bridges and highways counted as real, actual infrastructure, Republicans now appear to realize that such a position is untenable in the 21st century, which is why the party's new blueprint includes funding for broadband and water-system overhauls.

That's the good news. The bad news is, well, there's quite a bit of bad news.

Right off the bat, part of the problem is political: to overcome a Republican filibuster, any bipartisan bill would need 60 votes, and as of late yesterday, Capito's proposal had only five co-sponsors. In other words, even if every member of the Senate Democratic conference were to immediately abandon their own proposal and embrace this GOP counteroffer, there's no guarantee that this meager bill would pass.

But even if proponents could stitch together 60 votes, it wouldn't change the fact that this Republican plan is obviously too small and too narrowly tailored. The White House's proposal package carries a $2.3 trillion price tag; the GOP alternative is roughly one-fourth that size.

What's more, Capito had told CNBC last week that a package between $600 billion and $800 billion would be in a "sweet spot" for a larger compromise. In the days that followed, the Republican offer moved further away from Biden's offer, not closer to it.

It's precisely why many Senate Democrats agreed yesterday that the GOP counter-offer is "far too small" to be taken seriously.

Complicating matters, of course, is the simple fact that Democrats don't actually need Republican support for an infrastructure-and-jobs bill -- the majority party can use the budget reconciliation process to pass the bill they want to pass, whether the GOP likes it or not. The result is a dynamic in which Republicans are effectively saying, "Yes, you won the elections. And yes, your plan is popular. And yes, you can pass it if you want. But you should instead voluntarily agree to slash your ambitions by three-quarters, making far less of a difference, in order to make the opposition party happy."

Finally, there's the question of financing. As expected, the GOP proponents behind this new offer are refusing to alter any element of the failed Republican tax plan from 2017, and instead intend to pay for the bulk of their plan by repurposing unspent COVID relief funds.

The White House's reaction can fairly be described as polite skepticism, coupled with a vow for additional discussions. Watch this space.