“We can get something that gets 60, 70, or 80 votes in the Senate, but only if they’re willing to negotiate.”

Rossi Discusses Prospects of Infrastructure Agreement & Other Issues Facing Congress This Year

WASHINGTON, DC — In remarks this past Wednesday before a virtual meeting of The Ripon Society and the Franklin Center, a top aide to the Senate Republican leadership discussed not only the prospect that Congress could reach agreement on a package to strengthen America’s infrastructure, but some of the other key issues being debated on Capitol Hill this year.

The top aide was Nick Rossi.  Rossi serves as the Chief of Staff to Senate Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota. In this role, he heads up the staff of the GOP Whip operation and plays a key role in making sure that Republicans are unified and act in concert on key votes.  Rossi has served as Chief of Staff since 2019 and has been a top member of Thune’s staff since January 2013.  

Prior to his work in the Senate, Rossi served as a unit chief and special agent at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  He touched on the importance of law enforcement officers — and, in particular, the service and sacrifice of the U.S. Capitol Police — at the outset of his remarks.

“I really should begin by noting the pall that’s still sort of hanging over the Capitol after last week’s deadly assault that led to the loss of Officer Billy Evans’ life,” Rossi said.  “The Capitol Police force has suffered a number of devastating events this year, most notably in connection with the events of January 6th. After last week, when a driver rammed into two officers, killing Officer Evans and wounding a second, it’s got the entire Capitol community on edge. 

“We were all hopeful with the arrival of spring and the reduction in the perimeter fencing that had gone up around the Capitol that we were on our way back to some sense of normalcy around here. So it’s a setback — one that hopefully won’t be long lasting.  But certainly, for Officer Evans and his family, it’s a tragedy of huge proportions. And so our hearts go out to his family and to the entire Capitol Police force for what they’ve endured over the last several months.”

Rossi then turned his attention to the legislative agenda in the Senate and some of the key issues he sees the Upper Chamber working on in the coming weeks.

“We’ve been relatively productive on the personnel front,” he stated.  “We’ve confirmed the President’s Cabinet more quickly than either of the past two administrations, with the lone exception being the head of OMB which is still outstanding. The rest of the Cabinet has been confirmed. And when we get back to town next week, we will continue the pace by processing nominations for the next tier of the President’s nominees.  So that’ll be ongoing. 

“We’ll also likely consider a couple of Congressional Review Act resolutions. As folks know, these are resolutions that are privileged when they come to the floor and allow Congress to weigh in on regulations that were adopted under the last Administration. When Republicans took control of the House and Senate and had a Republican President in the White House in 2017, we acted with some vigor to undo some of the regulations that the prior administration had put in place. 

“We expect that Democrats will try to do the same. There are rumblings that they may seek to force votes on rules regarding things like employers settling discrimination cases and methane emissions. So I’m expecting that some of those will percolate up.”

As for areas where he thought Republicans and Democrats could reach bipartisan agreement, Rossi pointed to a few.  

One area deals with China.

“There is much discussion about a so-called ‘China’ bill that Leader Schumer and others have talked about,” he stated.  “This is a bill that really focuses on U.S. competitiveness with China. The base text is likely to be a bipartisan measure that Senator Schumer and Senator Todd Young of Indiana have co-sponsored called The Endless Frontier Act. It’s basically a bill that would invest in emerging technologies that have national security implications in many cases. 

“It is a bill that’s not entirely without some possible controversy because it seeks to allocate a significant amount of money — I think a $100 billion over 10 years — in certain areas, and it gives the National Science Foundation an out-sized role in that process.  But it’s something that I think there’s bipartisan interest in.  Certainly there’s a lot of bipartisan interest in addressing areas where we need to compete more effectively with China. And so I think there’s some hope for that, although my suspicion is that any package will take it’s time to go through regular order in the committees, perhaps with hearings and markups during the month of April and possible floor consideration after that.”

The other area ripe for bipartisan agreement, Rossi said, is infrastructure.

“There is the possibility that a more traditional infrastructure or highway bill might emerge from the Environment and Public Works Committee,” he stated, “although that is overshadowed by the big package that the President has announced.  Whether you call it the American Jobs Act or the Build Back Better Act, I think the folks on our side have been quick to point out that only a relatively small fraction of the bill is targeted toward roads, bridges, and the other kinds of traditional infrastructure items that would normally be considered as part of a surface transportation or highway bill. 

“I don’t want to suggest that Members on our side view infrastructure too narrowly. I think my boss among others believes that broadband, for example, should be included among infrastructure.  But there are a lot of things in the package that the President has announced that go far beyond that, and, frankly, stretch the meaning of infrastructure and look more designed to address constituencies on the left, including labor unions and others.”

According to Rossi, one of the potential obstacles that could stand in the way of bipartisan cooperation is the possibility that Democrats could eliminate the filibuster.

“It is the means by which we ensure that major pieces of legislation can meet the bar of at least getting some bipartisan support by getting 60 votes,” he said of the long-used legislative tactic.  “It’s also a way of minimizing dramatic swings in public policy based on who controls the body. It is one of the distinguishing factors of the Senate. It basically supports the idea of unlimited debate, which is a characteristic of the Senate that has been there since the founding.  

“And so the threat to the legislative filibuster — notwithstanding the positive comments from members like Senator Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Sinema of Arizona — have put us in a position where everything that the Democrats are pursuing, even things that might otherwise achieve bipartisan solutions, feels like it’s occurring under the sword of Damocles, where if we don’t go along with what they’ve put forward, there’s always this threat that they will act to take away the ability of the minority to help contribute to what’s happening here.

“And it’s ironic that is happening when we are in a 50-50 divided Senate, with neither party having a mandate from the electorate about its agenda. That said, I’m still hopeful that there are some things we can get done.”

Following his opening remarks, Rossi took a number of questions, including one about immigration reform and the prospect that common ground can be found there, as well.

“First of all,” Rossi began, “I think that the current administration has to own up to the fact that what’s happening at the border is based on their actions at the beginning of the President’s term.  Senator Thune was one of a group of Republican Senators who went down to the border on a recent trip led by Senators Cornyn and Cruz to see for themselves the kind of conditions that exist on the border and what’s happening there. I would even credit outlets like the Washington Post which have pointed out that— notwithstanding the rhetoric of the Administration about how this is all just cyclical — what in fact we’re seeing now is a spike in efforts to enter the country, especially by unaccompanied minors, that is unmatched for the last 15 years.  It really is a crisis whether the Administration is ready to label it that way or not. Simply by restoring some of the conditions that existed at the end of the last Administration, President Biden’s team could do a lot to help stem that flow. 

“More directly to the question, I think no one ever lost money betting against Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. It’s something we’ve been trying to do for the better part of the last decade.  But I do think that there is an opportunity here if the new administration would be clear-eyed about it. If they’re willing to acknowledge that more needs to be done to secure our border, I think there’s a willingness there to try to address some of the issues that have been outstanding for a while — whether that’s dealing with the Dreamers and putting them on more stable, legal footing; whether it is, frankly, some reform to our asylum laws to make sure that folks actually have a credible fear of persecution when they arrive and seek asylum; or  whether it is some of the employment-based visa reforms that folks on our side are always eager to see. There’s a compromise to be had there, if we can balance those things.”

Rossi was also asked about the prospect that an agreement can be reached on infrastructure and, more specifically, the possibility that Democrats could raise the corporate tax rate and reinstate the state and local tax (SALT) deduction to finance the plan.

“Republicans are very concerned about the President’s goal of using changes to the 2017 tax law to pay for this proposal,” Rossi stated.  “I think you’re going to find very little Republican support for dramatic changes to the corporate rate. I think that’s even more true if we start getting into the so-called death tax on estates that are so important to a lot of small businesses and their owners.  So I think there’s a lot of Republican skepticism about the President’s proposed pay-fors. And so that colors a lot of this debate, not just the size of the package that the President has put forward, but also the ways that he’s proposing to pay for it.”

“With regard to the SALT deduction, I think you can expect Members on our side to point out the hypocrisy of Democrats complaining about taxes and yet looking for tax code benefits that will largely favor those living in high tax, largely blue states making significant incomes.”

Given the fact that the most recent COVID relief bill was passed on a party line vote, Rossi was also asked about the possibility that, instead of being bipartisan, an infrastructure plan could be approved the same way.

“This last COVID relief bill could have been a bipartisan vote if Democrats had wanted it to be,” he stated bluntly.  “If they had actually engaged with us and wanted it to be bipartisan and get to 80 votes, that would have been possible. Might it have taken two or three extra weeks? Probably. Might it have been $800 billion instead of $1.9 trillion? Perhaps.  Would it have still been meaningful relief to Americans and something to help kickstart the economy as we emerged from the pandemic? Absolutely.  

“I think the same thing is true of infrastructure. We can get something that gets 60, 70, or 80 votes in the Senate, but only if they’re willing to negotiate. If they are wedded to their package and unwilling to make any but the smallest changes that they need to ensure that Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema can vote for it, then we’re not going to get there. And unfortunately, that leaves us in a position where the only bills that will be truly bipartisan will be the ones that don’t spend any money, because they can’t get them through on reconciliation. They’ll have to work with us on those. 

“That’s unfortunately where we’re at right now. I hate to sound like I’m passing the buck too much, but I really do think Joe Biden came into office with a huge opportunity. There was a well of goodwill towards him based on his prior service in the Senate and the kind of rhetoric he was using during his inaugural about working together in unifying the country. But Democrats have quickly jettisoned that in favor of partisan approaches.”

The Ripon Society is a public policy organization that was founded in 1962 and takes its name from the town where the Republican Party was born in 1854 – Ripon, Wisconsin. One of the main goals of The Ripon Society is to promote the ideas and principles that have made America great and contributed to the GOP’s success. These ideas include keeping our nation secure, keeping taxes low and having a federal government that is smaller, smarter and more accountable to the people.