Manchin is in no rush to strike an infrastructure deal with Republicans — and it's giving some Democrats 'bad flashbacks' to futile Obamacare talks 12 years ago

  • Bipartisan infrastructure talks are likely to stretch into June with centrist Democrats reluctant to pull the plug.
  • Some Democrats are wary, citing failed efforts to secure GOP support for Obamacare in 2009.
  • “I’d keep pushing forward as hard as I could, but there’s not much time left,” former Democratic senator Max Baucus said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

With negotiations on a major infrastructure package likely to stretch into June, the White House is poised to blow past its self-imposed Memorial Day deadline, which was meant to ensure significant progress on a bipartisan plan.

Senate Republicans led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) are preparing to make a $1 trillion offer as soon as Thursday. Another bipartisan group of six senators that includes Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Me.) are preparing another offer to President Joe Biden in case those talks stall.

Manchin is insisting on more time to secure a deal, saying on Tuesday “this is the long game, not a short game.” The White House want to approve a multi-trillion spending package to upgrade roads and bridges, in addition to setting up universal pre-K, tuition-free community college, and cash payments to families.

But some Democrats doubt Republicans’ genuine interest in giving Biden a bipartisan victory and are wary of the ongoing talks turning into a time-consuming dud. They cite huge differences that remain to be bridged on the size, scope, and basic definition of infrastructure. Democrats are anxious to shepherd along new economic programs using their thin majorities in the House and evenly divided Senate.

Their potential to drag into the summer is prompting comparisons to negotiations over a decade ago between President Barack Obama and Republicans on overhauling the healthcare system.

“When I read the comments from Sen. Manchin asking for more time, all of a sudden I had bad flashbacks to Obamacare where there was a push and pull between the desire for more time and the reality that Republicans were never going for it,” Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), told Insider.

Max Baucus, a former Democratic senator and one of the architects of Obamacare, said in an interview he was getting “somewhat” a case of déjà vu seeing the infrastructure discussions unfold.

“I’d keep pushing forward as hard as I could, but there’s not much time left. I’d give it a month or so and then tell Schumer to push reconciliation,” the former Montana lawmaker said, referring to a legislative tactic available to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to approve some bills with only a simple Senate majority.

“I doubt you’re going to see much bipartisanship in the end”

In 2009, the Obama administration chased support from a bloc of moderate GOP senators for the plan that became the Affordable Care Act. As chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus spent five months trying to draw backing from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican on the panel, for a more “durable” health law.

That effort collapsed amid sharp disagreements on tax increases and whether Americans should be obligated to buy health insurance. Republicans stepped up their attacks and cast the healthcare bill as federal overreach, with Grassley falsely warning of the government “pulling the plug on grandma” at an Iowa town hall that August.  

Anger over how voters perceived Obamacare contributed to major Republican victories in the 2010 midterms, one that lost the House for Democrats and effectively crippled the next six years of Obama’s legislative agenda. Now, Baucus sees his experience as a cautionary tale as Democrats attempt to forge ahead with a massive two-part package to reconfigure the economy with new spending on physical infrastructure, healthcare, and education.

“I doubt you’re going to see much bipartisanship in the end. Frankly, a lot of Republicans would rather not see a bipartisan bill,” Baucus told Insider. “They say they would, but deep down they don’t.” 

Baucus said he believes next year’s midterms are already factoring into the negotiations, in the sense that a party-line reconciliation bill from Democrats would almost surely include tax hikes on the wealthy and large firms, and a lot of Republicans “are going to run against those tax increases in 2022.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in an interview he was “very concerned” about Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s endgame on infrastructure, pointing to his recent comment about being “100% focused” on thwarting the Biden administration. The GOP leader also made similar remarks early on in the Obama administration.

“I’m always going to try and get a bipartisan approach, but it’s certainly a bigger lift after a statement like that,” he said.

Yet other Democrats like Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said they weren’t troubled by the state of the discussions. “I think we’re on the timeframe that I always thought we’d be on,” he told Insider. “Thus far, it’s soliciting their opinions.”

Kaine continued: “Even if we go reconciliation, we will put things in that bill that will be extremely attractive to Republican governors, to Republican mayors, to Republican interest groups.” He said he thought it was possible for Democrats to “pick up votes we weren’t expecting.”

The White House used reconciliation to approve a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill in March. Biden met with Senate Republicans once in early February in a bid to broker a deal. But he ultimately abandoned those talks by the end of the month after they only put $618 billion on the table. No GOP lawmakers voted for the Biden stimulus law.

There are signs that Democratic leaders are loathe to avoid watering down bills for the veneer of bipartisanship. “Look at 200[9] where we spent a year and a half trying to get something good done, ACA, Obamacare, and we didn’t do all the other things that had to be done,” Schumer said on MSNBC in late January. “We will not repeat that mistake.”

Schumer told reporters on Tuesday that Democrats will move ahead with a “big bold plan” in July, suggesting reconciliation looms in the near future. Still, Capito said her GOP group would “not walk away” from the negotiating table anytime soon.

“I think you go as far as you can, but then there comes a time where the other side is just not seemingly negotiating in good faith, so you gotta stop and pass your own bill,” said Baucus.

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