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Should Progressives in Congress Oppose Biden’s Infrastructure Deal If Reconciliation Bill Is Blocked?

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The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill is making its way through the Senate this week. The outcome of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which calls for $550 billion in new spending and reuses some unused COVID-19 relief aid, will set the stage for debate on Biden’s much larger $3.5 trillion package, which Democrats hope to pass with a simple majority using the reconciliation process in the Senate. Jacobin staff writer Branko Marcetic says progressives must fight for the larger package and be willing to block the bipartisan bill, if needed. “If that reconciliation bill looks like it’s actually going to get blocked, then progressives need to use their numbers and use their leverage and wield power that they really have in this Congress,” he says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to ask you, Branko, about a key part of President Joe Biden’s agenda, the bipartisan bill that’s the first phase of his infrastructure plan. This week, the Senate is working on amendments to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which calls for spending $555 billion in new money over five years on the country’s roads, bridges, water systems and broadband and the electric grid. But critics say the bill fails to urgently address the climate emergency. The Intercept reports it actually includes $25 billion in potential new subsidies for fossil fuels. The outcome of the bipartisan bill will set the stage for debate on Biden’s much larger $3.5 trillion package, which Republicans strongly oppose, but would require a simple majority for passage through reconciliation.

So, you wrote a piece, Branko Marcetic, in Jacobin magazine headlined “Biden’s Infrastructure Deal Is Terrible. Progressives in Congress Should Block It.” And you also are the author of the biography of Biden, Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. But can you talk about the infrastructure bill — bills, as they stand now, and particularly the bipartisan one? What’s been stripped out of it?

BRANKO MARCETIC: As you say, a lot of the climate stuff. I mean, the bipartisan bill, by virtue of having to negotiate with the Republicans, who, of course, are climate deniers and, you know, are captured by corporate interests, including fossil fuels, of course, they do not want a whole host of climate measures in there that are going to compete with those industries or that will, you know, eventually phase them out. So, a lot of that stuff has been stripped down. You know, the clean energy standard, which was meant to be one of the cornerstones of transitioning the United States’ electricity grid away from fossil fuels and to renewable energy, that’s out of the bill. The spending that was initially put in the original proposal by Biden was to spend about $125 billion a year. That has gone out.

Though there’s still things in there. Don’t get me wrong. There’s, I think, about $66 billion for passenger rail. There’s investments in renewable energy and that kind of thing. So, it’s not nothing, but the numbers are substantially smaller than they were in the original proposal. And the issue there is, you know, overcoming climate change requires a mind-boggling transformation of not just the energy system, but really the way that we live our lives, the way that we structure society. It requires a really, really massive investment of money to do this. Some groups — say, the Roosevelt Institute, for instance — they estimate that you need about $1 trillion a year for the next 10 years, at the very least, to be able to do this. You know, you’ve also got people who talk about the climate crisis and overcoming it as a kind of World War II-style effort. Well, in 1945, the amount of — the percentage of GDP that was spent for the war effort was about 37.5%. That original climate infrastructure bill was going to spend 1% of GDP per year. So, that’s even — that’s the one that was more ambitious. This one is far, far, far less than that.

So I think the climate issue is probably the biggest thing that’s not in there, but you’ve also got a whole host of things that are in the $3.5 trillion one that the Senate is trying to pass that are not in this bipartisan bill, because, I guess, they were not considered by Republicans or some of the more conservative Democrats who are negotiating this bipartisan bill as infrastructure. So, that includes universal pre-K. That includes free community college and, you know, other things like that, things that are not physical infrastructure — they’re not bridges and roads — but they are key to how the economy functions. You need educated workers to be able to have a good-functioning economy. You need people’s kids to be take care of, to have somewhere to go, so that people can go to work and not have to think about what they’re going to do in terms of child care.

So, all of those things are missing from the bipartisan bill. So, you know, if that is the only thing that gets passed, given the slim majorities, given the — what’s on the horizon in 2022, it’s going to be very difficult for Democrats to actually hold the House and the Senate — if this doesn’t get passed, it will be looked at as a massive missed opportunity that we will really regret, I think, in years to come.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But then, in terms of being able to accomplish both the bigger bill through budget reconciliation and this infrastructure package, how do you foresee that actually happening? And what is the role of progressives in that situation? For instance, if the progressives do try to block infrastructure, do you think they will have sufficient leverage to get what they want in the reconciliation bill?

BRANKO MARCETIC: Well, yeah, it’s tricky. So, Biden has said that they’re going to pass both bills in tandem. The Senate leadership and other Democratic leadership, they’ve said as much, as well. At the moment, the idea is to pass first the bipartisan bill in the Senate, send it to the House, and then, after that, just before the Senate goes on recess, to pass, basically, a framework for the bigger $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, which also will then go to the House.

Now, the issue is: Can progressives trust that if they vote for this bipartisan bill, that they won’t have the rug pulled out under them either by the Biden administration, which has already dropped a number of pretty significant campaign promises, including the public option, which never gets talked about anymore, and by conservative lawmakers, people like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who has already said, “$3.5 trillion, that’s way too much money for me. I’m not going to support that”? Can they trust that? I would say they cannot.

And so, the question here is: Are progressives — you know, there’s a very slim majority in the House that the Democrats have, because of the election loss in the House during 2020, which, on the one hand, was bad for Democrats, but can be very good for — you know, given the fact that there is a pretty substantial number of socialist and progressive lawmakers now in there, who can serve a role like the tea party served for the Republicans, you know, back during the Obama years, where they can use their numbers to say, “Hey, well, if you’re not going to give us what we’ve asked for, then we’re going to vote this down. We’re going to vote down your bipartisan infrastructure package, and therefore no one gets anything.” They have said as much. You know, AOC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she has said that she will not be voting for the bipartisan package unless the reconciliation bill also goes through. Bernie Sanders in the Senate, he has said the same thing, essentially.

The question is: What kind of guarantee are they going to get that they are not going to have that rug pulled out under them? And I think a verbal agreement or a verbal assurance is not enough. So, yeah, I would say, look, if the cost of passing the reconciliation bill is having to pass this bipartisan bill, as well, that seems like an acceptable price. But if that reconciliation bill looks like it’s actually going to get blocked, then progressives need to, you know, use their numbers and use their leverage and wield power that they really have in his Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Branko Marcetic, we want to thank you for being with us, staff writer at Jacobin magazine. We’ll link to your latest piece, “Biden’s Infrastructure Deal Is Terrible. Progressives in Congress Should Block It.”

Next up, we move from the battle in Congress to the battle on the frontlines. Twenty more water protectors were brutally arrested over the weekend fighting the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline. We’ll speak with Indigenous lawyer Tara Houska. Stay with us.

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