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Solving a mystery: Why McConnell didn't kill the infrastructure bill

Two months ago, Biden's infrastructure talks with Republicans collapsed. Today, a bipartisan bill passed anyway. How and why did this happen?

It was exactly two months ago yesterday when President Joe Biden's infrastructure talks with Senate Republicans collapsed. After weeks of back-and-forth negotiations, White House officials concluded that an agreement simply wasn't going to happen.

It was difficult to imagine at the time that a bipartisan infrastructure agreement would clear the chamber with 69 votes, and yet, that's precisely what happened this morning.

The Senate on Tuesday passed a sweeping $550 billion infrastructure bill that would make a huge investment in the nation's roads, public transit, water and broadband. The bill passed 69 to 30, with 19 Republicans joining all Democrats. The passage marks a victory for President Joe Biden, who made rebuilding the nation's infrastructure the centerpiece of his campaign and who told the American people he could help usher in a new era of bipartisan cooperation.

For those keeping score, the 19 GOP senators who voted for the agreement were Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Shelly Moore Capito (W.Va.), Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Deb Fischer (Neb.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), John Hoeven (N.D.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rob Portman (Ohio), James Risch (Idaho), Mitt Romney (Utah), Dan Sullivan (Alaska), Thom Tillis (N.C.), and Roger Wicker (Miss.). The full roll call is online here.

The proposal now heads to the Democratic-led House, which has already begun its August break. There are more than a few House Democrats who are skeptical of the bipartisan package, and who are inclined to wait to consider it until after they've seen the more ambitious and more progressive reconciliation package.

And with that in mind, immediately after the bipartisan bill passed, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) moved forward with plans to advance his party's $3.5 trillion blueprint, designed to focus on "human" infrastructure -- which includes issues such as health care, child care, housing, education, and climate.

Schumer's plan is to pass a budget resolution -- almost certainly along party lines -- later this week, ahead of floor action in both chambers in mid-September.

While the dust settles on this round of the process, there is a lingering question that hangs overhead: how in the world did this happen? Or more to the point, if Mitch McConnell had the option of killing the bipartisan deal, why didn't he?

There are, to be sure, competing schools of thought to explain what transpired. It's true, for example, that Biden invested considerable energy into this bill, and his behind-the-scenes efforts helped make a difference. It's also true that big bills tend to do well when there are few powerful forces lobbying against them. (Even conservative media didn't make much of an effort to derail the proposal.)

That said, I'd recommend focusing on three elements:

1. Republicans largely got what they wanted out of the process and the deal. From the outset, GOP senators had one principal goal: protecting the party's Trump-era tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations. Once Biden agreed to negotiate under these restrictions, Republicans were far more amenable to working on infrastructure investments, which they tend to support and recognize as popular.

2. Republicans saw the small bill as a way to put the big bill in jeopardy. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was candid about this point, publishing a tweet yesterday that read, "By passing a bipartisan bill it will make it much harder for Schumer-Pelosi-AOC to pass the $3.5 trillion liberal spending bill later this year."

For the GOP, it's a relatively straightforward plan: Pass the modest, bipartisan package, then sit back and wait for Democrats to tear each other apart over the reconciliation plan. With tiny Democratic majorities in both chambers, and effectively zero margin for error, Republicans have reason to believe that today's bill will be the only one that can pass.

3. McConnell & Co. saw greater risks from killing this bill than passing it. Republicans didn't exactly enter the talks with a lot of leverage: if the GOP minority balked and refused to work with Dems on infrastructure, the Democratic majority had the option of simply tackling the issue in their own way through a reconciliation measure.

By striking a deal, Republicans ensured that the bill was smaller, left tax rates alone, and prevented handing annoying people like me more rhetorical ammunition about scrapping the filibuster.

In the end, McConnell and other GOP leaders had a choice: help pass a modest bill on traditional infrastructure, or watch from the sidelines as Democrats legislated without them. I don't imagine Republicans were happy about handing Biden a win, but the likely alternative was a presidential win the GOP would've liked even less.