Bipartisan Infrastructure Talks Recall Heated Health Care Summer of 2009

The template for today’s infrastructure stalemate was set in 2009. Then as now, a small group of senators, Democratic and Republican, were empowered to seek a deal.

“It was going to be done in a bipartisan way, with a goal of doing like you do other social programs in the United States, like civil rights and Medicare and Medicaid — they all pass with wide bipartisan majorities,” Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who was then the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said in a 2014 interview.

Then as now, if no compromise could be reached, Democrats needed every single senator in their party to push through a bill. That meant holding all 60 together in 2009 to beat a Republican filibuster; today, Democrats need all 50 of their members to use a budget maneuver called reconciliation to steer clear of a filibuster and pass legislation with a simple majority.

“The reality was there were moderate Democrats who were very uneasy about doing health care, period, and certainly about doing it in a partisan way,” Mr. Selib said this week. “The only way to go 60-for-60 was to show Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln and Evan Bayh that we were going to do everything to make it bipartisan, that we were not going to leave anything on the field.”

Mr. Nelson, a conservative Nebraskan, and Ms. Lincoln, an embattled Arkansan, are long gone, but today, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona need the same assuaging.

Then as now, some in both parties did not want any kind of deal, either because they hoped to thwart a new president or hoped to avoid the necessary compromise.

“I had a fair number of people who told me I was being disloyal to my party, people who told me that I didn’t get it, that you could not work with the other side,” said Kent Conrad, then a Democratic senator of North Dakota. “And look, I’m not naïve. I recognized then and now that there are some in the other party whose really only objective was to bring President Obama’s administration down.”

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