above-ground subway train snakes its way through the city
The infrastructure bill’s approval by the Senate is a historic investment and a big win for President Joe Biden’s agenda, says VCU expert Alex Keena. (Getty Images)

The Senate has passed a $1.2T bipartisan infrastructure plan. What happens next?

VCU expert Alex Keena discusses the bill’s significance and how the next major spending package could be a true test in Washington.

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In a bipartisan vote Tuesday, the U.S. Senate passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that would fund investments in roads, bridges, public transit, broadband, airports, passenger and freight rail, water systems and more.

Alex Keena, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, teaches a course on Congress and is an expert on political representation. The infrastructure bill’s approval by the Senate, Keena says, is a historic investment and a big win for President Joe Biden’s agenda. But what will its fate be in the House? Will it lead to more bipartisanship? And what is likely to happen with the next major spending package, a $3.5 trillion budget plan? Keena answered these questions and others in an interview with VCU News.

Alex Keena, Ph.D.
Alex Keena, Ph.D.

How significant is the Senate’s passage of this infrastructure package? What do you expect will happen to it in the House?

The infrastructure bill represents a generational investment in roads, bridges, rail and public transit, and it appropriates federal money to expand high-speed internet access, increase the number of electric car charging stations, and modernize the electric grid and water infrastructure.

While the bill passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (a Democrat) has indicated her caucus will not support the bill if it is not coupled with a “human infrastructure” package that Democrats support. In theory, the Democrats have the numbers to pass this additional package in the Senate using the budget reconciliation process, but it is not clear that some of the “moderate” Democrats, like Joe Manchin [West Virginia] or Kyrsten Sinema [Arizona], are ready to sign off on this bill, and it will take a while for the Democrats to work out the details.

Yet it’s hard to imagine House Democrats passing over the infrastructure package approved by the Senate, and if the Democrats in the Senate fail to advance the “human infrastructure” bill, it seems likely that Pelosi would put the Senate-approved plan up for the vote.

Why do you think this infrastructure package garnered bipartisan support? And do you see this particular package as a one-off deal, or do you think it indicates there’s room for more bipartisanship in Congress?

These infrastructure investments are long overdue, and leaders in Congress have been talking about an infrastructure deal for more than a decade. In fact, it was near the top of former President Donald Trump’s “to do” list when he started his presidency, yet there were never any serious negotiations between Republicans and Democrats. At that time, Republicans controlled Congress. Now Democrats control both Houses, and the timing is right for bipartisanship.

Congress spent a record amount of money during 2020 in combating coronavirus, so members on both sides of the aisle are comfortable with appropriating large sums to tackle pressing problems. Second, a number of Republican senators have announced their retirements or are running in competitive races in 2022, so working with the Democrats makes sense politically for them.

Lastly, Biden prioritized the bipartisan talks in the Senate, and has made unity a central theme in his presidency. For these reasons, I would expect more emphasis on bipartisanship moving forward, at least in the Senate. That said, if the Democrats muscle the “human infrastructure” bill through Congress without Republican support for better or worse, this might poison the well, so to speak, and make bipartisanship less likely in the future.

Next up on Congress’ agenda is a $3.5 trillion budget plan, which is expected to include major investments in health care, climate change, education and child care, and raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations. How do you expect that negotiation to end up? What political impact do you expect?

These negotiations will almost certainly occur between Democrats in the Senate and Pelosi in the House, and it is unlikely that any Senate Republicans will support such a bill. Yet if the Democrats succeed, it would represent one of the most far-reaching expansions of the social safety net ever, on the scale of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies or Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. However, there is one catch: due to Senate rules, the plan has to be completely paid for with new revenue, so Democrats would have to raise taxes on the wealthy to make this happen. It is not guaranteed that all 50 Democratic senators would support such measures, but it is certainly possible.