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On popular infrastructure plan, GOP faces ugly new 'purity test'

In theory, Biden's infrastructure package shouldn't be especially controversial. In practice, it's become the Republican Party's new "purity test."

In theory, President Joe Biden's infrastructure package, which Congress finally approved late last week, shouldn't be especially controversial. It's a bipartisan bill, negotiated in part by conservative Republicans. What's more, infrastructure is an issue that's traditionally been non-partisan, and was briefly even a policy priority for Donald Trump.

And yet, much of the right has spent the last several days on the verge of hysterics — not just because the legislation passed, but because 13 Republicans in the House and 19 Republicans in the Senate voted for it.

Earlier this week, there were reports that the GOP House members who voted for the bipartisan bill may soon find their committee assignments at risk. Stripping sitting lawmakers of their committee assignments is usually reserved for dramatic and serious transgressions, but in contemporary Republican politics, the infrastructure vote counts.

But for many of the individual members, that's just the start. NBC News reported yesterday:

Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan received a profanity-laced voicemail threatening his life and that of his family and staff, criticizing his support for the bipartisan infrastructure bill last week. In the voicemail, obtained by NBC News from his office, a caller told Upton, "I hope you die. I hope everybody in your f------ family dies," while labeling him a "traitor."

Other pro-infrastructure Republicans have had to deal with similarly vile reactions. A New York Times report added, "One caller instructed Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois to slit his wrists and 'rot in hell.' Another hoped Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska would slip and fall down a staircase. The office of Representative Nicole Malliotakis of New York has been inundated with angry messages tagging her as a 'traitor.'"

Remember, at issue is a popular and bipartisan infrastructure plan. Given the ferocity of the reactions from the far-right, one might think the Republicans being inundated with abhorrent messages had endorsed Biden's re-election, rather than simply vote for a good bill.

But for much of the GOP and its base, this is, as a Washington Post analysis put it, "the latest Republican purity test." To be a Republican in good standing as 2021 nears its end is to be an opponent of domestic infrastructure investments.

Nearly as notable as the violent rhetoric directed at perceived GOP heretics is a nagging detail: The infrastructure package's detractors haven't gotten around to finding flaws in the legislation. As the New York Times' report added, "The visceral nature of the backlash is particularly striking because House Republican leaders who lobbied their rank and file to vote against the measure have made few substantive policy arguments against the plan."

I'm mindful, of course, of the GOP's descent into post-policy status, but it's nevertheless striking to realize that the Republicans' case against the infrastructure bill fails to include a case against the infrastructure bill.

What the GOP partisans know but don't want to say is an unpleasant truth: Republicans were supposed to vote against the infrastructure legislation, regardless of merits, because of the president's party affiliation.

Donald Trump spoke this week to the National Republican Congressional Committee and touted his affection for the House GOP minority. The former president quickly added, however, "I say it with a heavy heart: No 'thank you' goes to those in the House and Senate who voted for the Democrats' non-infrastructure bill.... You gave Biden a victory."

By this reasoning, elected officials shouldn't prioritize the public's needs. The goal, the argument goes, is to hurt the president politically.

It's a twisted vision for how our political system is supposed to work, but it's also an animating principle for much of the contemporary Republican Party.