Bipartisanship In Washington Looks Very, Very White

The 10 senators who negotiated a bipartisan infrastructure deal are predominantly from states with few people of color. That matters.

Ten senators triumphantly stood behind President Joe Biden on Thursday as he announced his support for the infrastructure deal they hashed out. It was no small feat to get five Democrats and five Republicans to agree on something, and getting the president on board was a major step.

Bipartisanship is a cherished concept in Washington. When a bill has the backing of Republicans and Democrats, it’s somehow supposed to be better ― better representative of what people want, and better able to stand up to scrutiny.

But that’s not what bipartisanship is much of the time.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) noticed the glaring disparities in the group that met at the White House, commenting on Twitter, “The diversity of this ‘bipartisan coalition’ pretty perfectly conveys which communities get centered and which get left behind when leaders prioritize bipartisan dealmaking over inclusive lawmaking (which prioritizes delivering the most impact possible for the most people).”

President Joe Biden met with a group of senators about their bipartisan infrastructure package on Thursday.
President Joe Biden met with a group of senators about their bipartisan infrastructure package on Thursday.
Jim Watson/Getty Images

Yes, the senators were all white; only 11 out of 100 senators are people of color.

But more important, perhaps, is which states these senators represent: This group predominantly comes from states that are overwhelmingly white. In other words, states with large numbers of people of color and big cities were mostly left out of the discussion.

Just three senators in the group ― Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) ― represent states that are more diverse than the United States as a whole.

The other seven have more white residents as a percentage of their population. Notably, four of the senators ― Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) ― come from states that are among the top five whitest states in the nation. All of their populations are more than 85% white.

Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, based on analysis of the 2008-2019 American Community Survey.
Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, based on analysis of the 2008-2019 American Community Survey.

“It’s a shame that the bipartisan group does not represent the diversity of the nation’s economy, needs and people. Larger, more diverse states should have a seat at the table, because the infrastructure package will be so important for big cities and communities of color,” said Darnell Grisby, executive director of TransForm, an advocacy group in California that focuses on transportation and justice.

“States like California, New York and Texas have transit systems that serve millions of people and power our nation’s biggest economies, and they have ambitious new projects in the works like high-speed rail. A robust infrastructure package will help our whole country, but communities of color often have more to gain as job seekers, commuters and transit riders; they should be represented in bipartisan negotiations,” he added.

The infrastructure framework totals roughly $1.2 trillion over eight years, containing $579 billion in new federal spending on infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, airports and waterways. There would be no new tax hikes to pay for the projects.

Other Democratic senators are skeptical of the deal, particularly because it doesn’t include robust measures to fight climate change.

Biden has pledged that he will veto the infrastructure bill unless it is paired with a broader jobs package that includes investments in child care, elder care, affording housing and electric vehicles.

“If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it,” Biden said Thursday. “I’m not just signing the bipartisan bill and forgetting the rest of it.”

But in order to pass that second bill, Democrats will need to go through a process known as reconciliation, which will allow them to move the legislation with a simple majority. They will need every Democratic senator on board to do that.

On Thursday, Manchin indicated his support for the plan, calling reconciliation “inevitable.”

But it’s still not clear if this deal will go through at all. Republicans are already balking at the arrangement. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called it “extortion,” and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blasted Biden for ruining the bipartisan moment.

Republicans have long insisted that any infrastructure package only include funding for items that are traditionally considered infrastructure, like roads and bridges.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), who has endorsed the bipartisan framework, for example, is seeking assurances from moderate Democrats that if he votes for the bipartisan bill, they won’t ultimately support a reconciliation package.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled House isn’t going to go along with a deal that only consists of the bipartisan infrastructure package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pledged that the House will not move forward “until the Senate passes the bipartisan bill and a reconciliation bill.”

“This is why a bipartisan [package] alone isn’t acceptable. The exclusion & denial of our communities is what DC bipartisan deals require,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Thursday. “That’s how you get GOP on board : don’t do much/any for the working class,” women, people of color or unions.

“We must do more,” she said.

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