Last week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that the bipartisan infrastructure bill may add to the federal deficit due to a lack of pay fors in the bill. And, in a show of their selective, political outrage over the deficit, Republicans are already complaining about the debt that the bill could incur, setting Congress up for a potentially protracted battle over the deficit.
The CBO announced on Friday that the infrastructure bill, if passed, will add $256 billion to the deficit, or about half of the new spending in the bill. Though Republicans have yet to align themselves against the bill because of that number, there are rumblings that coming deficit talks will be explosive.
“That will be an extraordinary debate of enormous dimension,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), said to the New York Times on the coming discussions over raising the debt ceiling. “I can’t think of a single issue that underscores the difference between the two parties more than the reckless tax-and-spending spree that we’ll be dealing with here in the next week or two.”
“A handful of Republicans have indicated that their support is contingent on the bill not adding to the deficit,” Brian Riedl, an economic policy fellow at libertarian think tank Manhattan Institute, told The Washington Post last week. “A several-hundred-billion-dollar shortfall could legitimately imperil that support.”
The potential additional deficit has already delayed the infrastructure bill yet again, after Republicans already worked to stretch the negotiations over months. The bipartisan group that worked on the bill said that the CBO was wrong and that the bill is fully paid for — but that didn’t stop Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tennessee) from blocking the Senate from advancing the bill Thursday, pushing the vote to Saturday.
The chamber agreed to advance the bill, clearing it for a final vote. It looks for now as though the bipartisan group has successfully assuaged the fears of enough Republicans about the deficit. But some on the right are already weaponizing the debt figure to further polarize the bill. And with the Republican Party’s history of selectively complaining about the deficit, their relative silence on the deficit so far likely won’t last for long.
“With a key test vote on the infrastructure measure expected around noon on Saturday, the Republican Party’s blasé attitude toward deficits will last only a matter of days,” wrote Jonathan Weisman and Alan Rappeport for the New York Times last week. Now, the Democrats will have to deal with passing their reconciliation bill along with a discussion about raising the debt ceiling with Republicans — or risk a government shutdown.
Besides the fact that Republicans are largely to blame for a lack of pay fors within the package, it’s telling that there would be any objection to the infrastructure investment when the same Republicans were utterly silent on the deficit when Donald Trump was in office.
Trump added nearly $7.8 trillion to the deficit in his four years in office, the third-largest deficit increase, to scale, for any U.S. president in history. A large contributor to that was the 2017 tax cuts that Republicans rushed through Congress and which have helped billionaires to avoid paying federal taxes. Republicans have stubbornly refused to roll back the tax cuts, even moderately, in the infrastructure bill.
During the Trump era, Republicans were almost completely mum on the deficit, and chose to kick the can down the road until Joe Biden was sworn into office. Now that Democrats are planning to pass their $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, however, the GOP outrage over spending has reached boiling point and is threatening to bubble over.