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Why the new Democratic agreement on infrastructure matters

Biden asked Congress to approve $4 trillion in infrastructure investments. Thanks to a breakthrough agreement, that's what Democrats now intend to deliver.

As a practical matter, there are two infrastructure bills. There's the bipartisan agreement negotiated last month by President Biden and a group of 10 senators -- five from each party -- which would invest $579 billion in new spending on domestic infrastructure needs. In theory, this package will face a Republican filibuster, but will have just enough GOP support to pass anyway.

But even as that agreement took shape, everyone involved in the process understood that the Democratic majority was simultaneously paying attention to a separate proposal focusing on combatting climate change and addressing "human infrastructure" -- which includes everything from health care to child care to housing. This measure would get no Republican backing, but the plan called for overcoming GOP opposition by passing it through the budget reconciliation process.

Negotiating the bipartisan bill was tough, but crafting this separate, larger bill posed its own challenges: Democrats don't necessarily agree with one another over the scope and scale of this effort. Last night, however, as NBC News reported, there was a breakthrough.

Senate Democratic leaders announced an agreement Tuesday evening to advance a $3.5 trillion spending plan to finance a major expansion of the economic safety net. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the $3.5 trillion would be in addition to the $579 billion in new spending in the bipartisan infrastructure agreement.

As Schumer was eager to tell reporters on Capitol Hill last night, the combined total of the two measures is over $4 trillion in domestic investments, "which is very, very close to what President Biden asked us for" when the White House first unveiled its infrastructure pitch.

The intra-party talks were led in large part by Schumer, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Budget Committee member Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), bringing together competing ideological factions: Sanders is among the chamber's most progressive members, while Warner has earned a reputation as a relative Democratic moderate.

They both serve on the Budget Committee, which is highly relevant because that's the panel responsible for writing reconciliation instructions into a budget resolution: the technical step necessary to getting the bill through Congress. With Sanders and Warner on the same page, the framework is expected to advance.

There are still some details that haven't yet been released -- the negotiations were over top-line numbers, and the formal legislation still needs to be written -- but Schumer made a point to emphasize that the senators agreed to "a robust expansion of Medicare, including money for dental, vision, and hearing."

It's no secret that Sanders was pushing a $6 trillion plan, though no one seriously expected a final package that would cost that much. Instead, the Vermont senator appeared to be playing the role of effective negotiator: aim high, open with a bid that was probably unrealistic, and settle on an agreement that meets core goals.

A Washington Post report raised a point that struck me as amazing: "Sanders and his Democratic peers settled on a lesser amount in a move that reflects the political realities inside a party whose centrist wing has sought to temper federal spending in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic."

I generally try to avoid references to "paradigm shifts," but there's something dramatic about a political landscape in which Democratic centrists, ready to "temper federal spending," endorse a $3.5 trillion infrastructure plan.

At this point, the Senate Budget Committee will move forward with plans to write and approve this new deal, as party leaders -- including the president -- make the case to the rest of the conference and their House counterparts. None of this will be easy, especially given the number of House Dems who still want to aim even higher.

At the exact same time, the technical work continues on the more modest, bipartisan plan, which is by no means a sure thing.

Yes, it has the White House's support. And the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And it's been endorsed by major labor leaders, including the AFL-CIO. And just this week, the plan received new support from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which unveiled an endorsement signed by more than 369 bipartisan mayors from across the country.

But Senate Republicans may yet kill it anyway. To clear the chamber, the bipartisan measure will need at least 10 votes from GOP senators, and as of Monday, some of its ostensible Republican backers were "going wobbly."

All of this is likely to come to a head quite soon, with some votes on tap for next week. Watch this space.