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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Such a wicked game

by John Brummett | June 6, 2021 at 9:06 a.m.

The United States requires a major new investment in infrastructure. Deferred maintenance doesn't get better on its own. Making that investment would create jobs and improve lives. On that a high percentage of us can agree.

On that happy note, let me announce that, alas, the rest of today's column could be titled "Toxic 21st Century American Partisan Politics, Part Umpteen."

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, a naturally divisive sort reflective of his time, said last week that, on an infrastructure compromise, Democrats in Washington need to learn to take "yes" for an answer. But Joe Biden was saying "yes" aplenty.

He had come down from $2.3 trillion to $1 trillion on new spending in his infrastructure package, meaning on projects not already in line for regular funding. Republican senators had come up to $257 billion.

Democrats want to do highways, bridges, transportation centers, water systems and broadband. They also propose electric-car charging stations, federal vehicle fleet conversion to electricity, repairing VA hospitals, funding clean energy jobs and expanding Medicaid to improve long-term health services for the looming explosion in numbers of elderly infirm. They say the meaning of infrastructure must change as times do.

Republicans say infrastructure means only highways, bridges, transportation centers, water systems and now broadband, not environmental or social undertakings such as luring us into electric cars and expanding health-care handouts.

The Biden administration first wanted to pay for its bill by raising the corporate income-tax rate from 21 to 28 percent, still less than what it was before the last Republican tax cut in 2017. But, because Republicans oppose tax increases and fear mathematics, Biden has countered with a new 15 percent minimum tax on corporate profits. It would apply to corporations earning profits but avoiding taxes otherwise because of credits, write-offs, loopholes and tricks.

Republican senators want to pay for their smaller package by telling states to use their covid relief money, which is not a serious solution. Biden proposes only to use unspent covid relief balances from the first stimulus package, when Donald Trump was president. It's about $70 billion, a small number in the modern context of nationwide infrastructure.

In a reasonable world, a deal practically makes itself.

There is a number more than $257 billion but less than $1 trillion. Let's put it closer to $257 billion so Republicans could chortle of victory. This isn't the last spending we'll ever do on infrastructure, surely.

That's because the next part of the deal would be for the Republicans to concede to the precept that corporations earning profits ought to pay at least something in taxes on those profits.

Finally, the deal would be for mostly traditional infrastructure--highways, bridges, transportation centers, water pipes and broadband, but with a little spending thrown in to convert federal vehicle fleets to electricity, and otherwise please, if hardly satisfy, the green left.

All you're seeking is 10 reasonable men and women among the 50 Republican senators, enough to pass a logical and substantive bill with 50 Democrats no matter the filibuster.

The Senate parliamentarian has now said Democrats may use budget reconciliation to avoid filibusters only one more time this calendar year. That means Democrats must either do infrastructure via bipartisanship with 60 votes or load up all the spending they really want in this infrastructure bill and shoot the moon on one more run of budget reconciliation. But that requires Joe Manchin's vote and he, beholden to a conservative West Virginia constituency and the only Mike Beebe-type Democrat in the Senate, has made clear he thinks infrastructure should be done on a bipartisan basis.

Democrats also could repeal the filibuster, an open invitation to Republicans to engage in payback when they regain the Senate.

The problem is finding the ever- more-elusive sweet spot between effective policy and the next election. That's always been the challenge of binary party politics. But the sweet spot has never been this hard to reach.

Swing voters rewarding reasonable compromise can be decisive in your party's favor only if your base remains motivated. And today's bases, both right and left, somehow manage to be both more passionate and unreliable than ever. Liberals are irritated already that Biden even negotiates with Republicans they distrust.

Where, then, might be that sweet spot--appearing honorable in negotiations so that the appreciative vital center can be decisive in your favor, but only if your base is sufficiently satisfied amid your concessions to remain energized, reasonably happy and not hostile to your supposed betrayal in giving too much to the demonized other?

And if one side can credibly find the sweet spot, then the other side likely will sense that fact late in negotiations and abandon them in favor of the electioneering tactic of stoking resentments and relying on demonization.

All that gets lost in that woeful game is something Americans overwhelmingly need and want.

Meanwhile, there are still people who say that our two-party system serves us well.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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