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When 'Infrastructure Week' stops being a political punch-line

“I really, honest to God, never have thought of infrastructure as being a partisan issue,” Biden said before meeting with senators in the Oval Office.
Image: Meeting on infrastructure investment at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington
President Joe Biden speaks alongside Vice President Kamala Harris (3rd-L), as he holds a meeting with Senators, including Ben Cardin (L), D-Md., Jim Inhofe (2nd-L), R-Ok., Tom Carper (2nd-R), D-Del., and Shelley Moore Capito, from right, R-W.V., about infrastructure improvements, in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 11, 2021.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

For those who watched the Trump White House closely, there was perhaps one joke that towered above the others: "Infrastructure Week." The Republican president started his term talking up his interest in an ambitious infrastructure package, and periodically, Donald Trump would suggest he was ready to get serious about the issue.

But that never happened. Though Democrats expressed a sincere interest in working on infrastructure, and even passed legislation in the House to address the national need, members of Team Trump struggled to persuade their GOP allies and failed to follow through with a credible plan of their own.

The need for infrastructure investments, however, never went away. As NBC News reported yesterday, President Joe Biden hopes to engineer a breakthrough that proved too elusive for his predecessor.

Even before he has secured his first major legislative priority, President Joe Biden is crafting the pitch for his second: an even larger spending plan that the White House is billing as the infrastructure package long sought by both parties. While any final votes on passage of a Covid-19 relief package are still at least weeks away, Biden has already begun wooing Republicans over his infrastructure push, which is likely to be the focus of a historically late first address to Congress, probably sometime in March.

“I really, honest to God, never have thought of infrastructure as being a partisan issue,” Biden said before meeting with senators yesterday in the Oval Office.

It's a fair point. Traditionally, there was no need to see the issue as partisan: every state and congressional district in the nation has infrastructure, and would benefit in a variety of ways from investments. But as Republicans have moved sharply to the right, infrastructure took on new partisan implications.

Biden is nevertheless making an effort, inviting a bipartisan group of senators to the Oval Office yesterday for some preliminary discussions on the issue, even as lawmakers continue to work on the unrelated COVID relief package. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who's known Biden for quite a while, told reporters after the meeting that it was a "very good" conversation.

The question is what might follow the "very good" conversation.

While there is no formal proposal on the table, Candidate Biden unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure plan as part of his "Build Back Better" initiative. It was a multifaceted blueprint focused not only on traditional infrastructure priorities -- highways, bridges, etc. -- but also goals related to combatting the climate crisis and expanding broadband access.

This will likely serve as the starting point for congressional discussions, though the final product -- if it exists -- would likely look very different.

But another angle to keep an eye on as the process moves forward is how the Democratic majority tries to pass a possible infrastructure bill.

Remember, ordinarily the budget reconciliation process, which allows the majority to avoid Senate filibuster, can only be used once per year, but Democrats will now have two bites at the apple. Indeed, when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) sat down with Rachel a few weeks ago, he described his plans on climate and how they might pass.

"By the way, President Biden very graciously made it part of his Build It Back Better Plan, which does a lot on climate," Schumer said. And we're looking at how we may ... fit as much of it into reconciliation as we can, because we get two reconciliation motions: one for COVID and then one probably for Build It Back Better."

Watch this space.