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What The Passing Of The Infrastructure Bill Could Mean For Future Senate Cooperation

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A large majority made up of both Democratic and Republican senators came together today to approve a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Ohio Senator Rob Portman was one of the top Republicans behind that effort.

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ROB PORTMAN: The Senate's doing its job. It's doing its job by helping the American people we represent through an historic investment in our nation's infrastructure that will serve the American people for decades to come.

CHANG: It was at least a momentary fulfillment of President Biden's campaign pledge to show that the two parties can actually govern together.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I know compromise is hard for both sides, but it's important. It's important. It's necessary for democracy to be able to function.

CHANG: That was the president at the White House after today's Senate vote. For more on what this rare outburst of bipartisanship signals and maybe what it does not, we're joined now by NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

Hey, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hey. Good to be with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: Good to have you. OK. So we should start off by saying that this infrastructure bill is not law yet. It still has to pass the House, and Democrats there plan to hold off on voting until a much bigger spending bill passes, one that's only backed by Democrats right now. So Ron, I mean, how significant is it really that this big bipartisan vote happened today?

ELVING: Highly significant because it showed the system working for once, even working the way James Madison and the rest of the founders imagined it might. So even in these hyper-partisan times, if you put a lot of effort into negotiating, if you get a core group of people from both sides to work together, you can still pass a bill that people in both parties consider important. Of course, it helps if it's also a hugely popular bill out in the country.

CHANG: (Laughter) Right.

ELVING: And this week, two national polls showed overwhelming support, including 40% of Republicans. So lo and behold, today we saw just about 40% of the Senate Republicans vote for this bill.

CHANG: Imagine that. OK. Well, how much do you think it helped that lawmakers did also manage to pass all of these enormous COVID relief bills last year?

ELVING: You could say that proved the system still functioned, still responded in the extremities of a health crisis and an economy in freefall, even if that meant a big spike in spending and borrowing. Of course, that kind of crisis sets a very high standard, but it did prove it could be done.

CHANG: OK, sure. But I mean, what do you think ultimately, Ron? Does today establish a new order? Like, are we going to see bipartisanship just breaking out all over the place?

ELVING: In a word, no. In fact, it may have been the high point of cooperation for the year, even the two years of this Congress.

CHANG: (Laughter).

ELVING: As you noted, it does not even guarantee that all those new roads and bridges and expanded broadband are going to happen. The next step is to negotiate the size and scope of that multitrillion dollar spending package you mentioned. Democrats plan to pass this with just their own votes this fall. And the House wants that bill twin-tracked with infrastructure. So the next hurdle is going to require the Democrats to negotiate and compromise among themselves

CHANG: Could get dicey. All right. Well, infrastructure funding has been a growing need for years now, back to the early months of President Obama's first term. Before you go, can you just remind us why it's taken so long to get this far while it's been so popular?

ELVING: A trillion is still a lot of money, Ailsa, even in the United States Congress. Tax increases are unpopular. And of course, there are deficit hawks against any more borrowing. We saw some of them today. So given the effort that it takes, infrastructure has taken a backseat to other priorities in both parties - health care for Democrats under Obama, tax cuts for Republicans under President Trump. Both Presidents Obama and Trump pushed their initial priorities on a basically partisan basis and with rather mixed results. Both might well envy where Biden stands now with his approach.

CHANG: That is NPR's Ron Elving. Thank you so much, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.