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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson December 22, 2021

Despite widespread GOP opposition, Biden finds bipartisan backing for infrastructure bill

Taking office during one of the most politically polarized eras in generations, Joe Biden faced steep obstacles to keeping his promise to secure bipartisan cooperation on the economy. In fact, during his first year in office, most of his key economic initiatives in Congress either passed with only Democratic votes or were moving towards consideration without any Republican support.

But one of Biden's most significant bills did pass with notable support from Republicans, and it did so as a direct result of Biden's efforts, amid eyerolls from some of his fellow Democrats, to get buy-in from GOP lawmakers: a bill to fund a significant expansion of transportation, energy, and broadband infrastructure. 

"There is evidence of bipartisan support in the passage of the infrastructure bill, on which Biden compromised and Democratic and Republican members of Congress did as well," said Christopher Wlezien, a professor of government at the University of Texas-Austin.

The first major bill Biden was able to pass was the American Rescue Plan, a coronavirus and economic relief bill. Despite broad, bipartisan passage of earlier relief bills that President Donald Trump signed, no Republican voted for the American Rescue Plan. It was able to pass because Democrats held majorities, albeit narrow ones, in both the House and the Senate.

Biden decided on a two-pronged approach when he pursued his next round of economic legislation. He decided to group together his "hard" infrastructure proposals in one bill and leave the other elements of his legislation — from Medicare drug price negotiation and paid-leave guarantees to an extended child tax credit — for a second bill. 

Biden did this because he gambled that enough Republicans would support the infrastructure bill in the Senate to make it past the 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster. The second measure, which came to be known as the Build Back Better bill, would have to be passed using the "budget reconciliation" process, which enables passage with just a simple majority, which is all that Democrats currently have in the chamber.

Though the decision to split the two bills annoyed some Democrats in the House, Biden's gambit paid off, at least partially, when the infrastructure bill finally cleared both chambers.

Senate passage came on Aug. 10, when H.R. 3684, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, cleared the chamber by a 69-30 margin. The 50 Democrats were joined by 19 Republicans in approving the measure: GOP Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven of North Dakota, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. 

All told, Biden's bill secured the votes of almost 40% of all Republican senators voting.

It took three months for the House to take up the measure. When it did, on Nov. 5, it passed, 228-206. Six Democrats voted against it — enough to tank the bill if only Democrats were voting for it — but the bill was passed with 13 Republicans voting for it.

The 13 Republicans were Don Bacon of Nebraska; Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania; Andrew Garbarino, John Katko, Nicole Malliotakis and Tom Reed of New York; Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio; Adam Kinzinger of Illinois; David McKinley of West Virginia; Chris Smith and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey; Fred Upton of Michigan; and Don Young of Alaska.

Backing the Democratic-backed bill was no easy vote for GOP lawmakers in either chamber. Trump attacked McConnell, blasting out an email asking, "Why is it that Old Crow Mitch McConnell voted for a terrible Democrat Socialist Infrastructure Plan, and induced others in his Party to do likewise, when he was incapable of getting a great Infrastructure Plan wanting to be put forward by me and the Republican Party?"

Trump also reportedly attacked the 13 House members who voted for the bill during remarks at a National Republican Congressional Committee dinner.

The fate of the Build Back Better bill, meanwhile, was tenuous at best going into the Christmas holiday. Sen. Joe Manchin — a West Virginia Democrat whose vote would be needed to approve the bill on a simple majority — backed off support on Dec. 19, though a reformulated measure could reemerge in the new year. If it does, though, there is little indication that any Republicans will support it.

In the meantime, political experts expect that it will be hard to replicate the bipartisan cooperation of the infrastructure bill during Biden's second year in office, since it's an election year in which both history and the current political mood suggest Republican gains in at least the House and possibly the Senate. Such factors would tend to reduce the incentive for Republicans to join in legislation that could help the Democrats achieve their aims. 

"I don't think we will see any bipartisan compromise on major contested legislation" in the coming year, said John J. Pitney, Jr., a Claremont McKenna College political scientist.

While Biden faced universal Republican opposition to much of his agenda and proceeded with a Democratic-only approach on several key bills, the infrastructure bill was an exception. With that bill, Biden persisted in a bipartisan strategy despite doubts among some of his fellow Democrats, and significant numbers of Republican lawmakers enabled the bill to pass, despite heavy criticism from Trump, the party's loudest voice.

We rate this promise a Compromise.

Our Sources, H.R. 3684 main index page, accessed Dec. 22, 2021

Senate roll call vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Aug. 10, 2021

House roll call vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Nov. 5, 2021

New York Times, "House Republicans Who Backed Infrastructure Bill Face Vicious Backlash," Nov. 10, 2021

Fox News, "Trump unloads on 13 Republicans who backed Biden's infrastructure bill," Nov. 9, 2021

Email interview with John J. Pitney, Jr., Claremont McKenna College political scientist, Dec. 16, 2021

Email interview with Christopher Wlezien, professor of government at the University of Texas-Austin, Dec. 16, 2021

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