The White House continues to see upside to infrastructure negotiations with Republicans, even as the talks run on longer than President Joe Biden initially planned.
The president still has faith in his ability to win over reluctant Senate Republicans and advisers see benefits — reputationally and politically — in working across the aisle.
But Biden and officials insist they aren’t going to let the negotiations go on for very long. The president’s advisers anticipate drawing harder lines in public over what should be in the plan and how to pay for it as Biden prepares to meet with the Senate GOP’s lead negotiator this week. Inside the White House, aides are eyeing other possible avenues to pass the infrastructure bill and are pointing to June 9, when a House committee dives into a surface transportation bill, as a crucial factor in their overall timing.
Whether the divides can be bridged in time still appears improbable. Biden remains firmly opposed to Republican attempts to pay for infrastructure projects by imposing user fees and using leftover funding from his Covid-relief bill and past pandemic packages. Advisers said that Republicans still have to do more to meet the president’s sprawling priorities, including fixing transit systems and veterans hospitals, removing lead pipes and moving to a greener economy through electric vehicles.
Biden is set to meet this week with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), her party’s lead negotiator. How the meeting and follow-up talks on infrastructure develop will go a long way to determining whether the president can apply his old-fashioned dealmaking approach to the era of hyper-polarized politics. It’s a challenging position, even for someone who has done it before. And Biden has never operated in a time of such deep intransigence.
“Even when he was vice president, obviously the right had a lot of strength then, but you didn’t have the ‘Trump factor.’ It’s a whole different world from what he was dealing with when he was in the Senate,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) “But I think he had a sense of that going into it. And I do think that there’s a group of folks in their party that do want to make a deal. But the question now is, are there 10" Senate Republicans?
Casey offered a simpler explanation for why the White House was compelled to prolong its talks with Republicans: They needed to if Biden wants to win over moderate Democrats.
“We’re not simply seeking a bipartisan deal for the sake of bipartisanship,” he said over the weekend, describing Democrats as rapidly approaching their “fish or cut bait moment.”
“It was to demonstrate to some moderates in our caucus that it was an effort that was undertaken seriously and we saw it through,” Casey added. “And I think by skipping that we wouldn’t have been able to get to 50 votes.”
Biden has long fashioned himself as uniquely able to work across the aisle, owing to his more than four decades as a senator and then vice president. As president, few, if any, of his recent predecessors arrived after being at the center of so many bipartisan agreements with politicians they had known for decades. And no president of late has spoken so wistfully about a time when the two parties could reach consensus on major policy proposals in Washington.
Biden confidants and colleagues still talk about his standoffs with Jesse Helms, the conservative Republican senator from North Carolina who acquiesced to Biden after hours of talks by signing off on a chemical weapons treaty. As vice president, Biden negotiated with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to extend the Bush tax cuts until the 2012 election while extracting hundreds of billions more in stimulus, including a new payroll tax cut for workers, extended unemployment benefits and larger tax credits for the poor and students.
They came together again to avert the so-called fiscal cliff in 2013. Biden has also waxed about his yearslong quest to convince former Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a longtime Republican, to switch to the Democratic Party, giving them a 60-vote majority to overcome a filibuster. He placed call after call to Specter, and caught up with him on train rides home, arguing the GOP that elected him moved right, while he was aligned with Democrats on health care, the economy and foreign policy.
Biden’s opponents in the presidential primary tried unsuccessfully to make his record of working across the aisle a liability. But Biden wore it as a badge of honor, touting his central role in helping avert further economic disaster with the passage of the stimulus bill, along with older legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act and ban on assault weapons.
“It’s just his nature to want to be able to work things out,” said Nancy Kassebaum, the former Republican senator from Kansas, recalling her own long-ago discussions with the likes of Biden and Chuck Grassley. “When you’ve faced various tragedies of your own, you’re more sensitive to what it takes. He has always said that, but it’s not from naivete, it’s from a result that you can work things out. That can be awfully hard, though.”
Upon entering the White House, Biden moved quickly to craft Covid relief legislation and didn’t wait around for Republicans to join him. But infrastructure was perceived to be different — less immediately critical than the pandemic and more likely to draw GOP support given their statements about wanting to get a deal done.
In the White House there is a belief that the public will reward the president for reaching a bipartisan agreement on infrastructure. In an April meeting with the centrist New Democrats congressional caucus, Steve Ricchetti, Biden’s counselor, told members that a bipartisan pact — or at least an effort at striking one — would be politically beneficial to the party, said a person in the meeting.
Ricchetti has been one of the White House’s main Hill point people on infrastructure, so much so that another person referred to him as the “House Dem whisperer.” (Louisa Terrell, director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese are also in on key Hill meetings). And congressional sources say Ricchetti has been open to letting talks around infrastructure play out longer than he had scheduled.
For this legislative task, Biden’s approach has been to engage when needed but allow congressional leaders and key officials to work though the plans. He’s talked up his commitment to making a deal. And he’s courted lawmakers in person, too. So far, 154 members of Congress have visited the White House, including some multiple times. More than 100 have participated in Oval Office meetings with the president.
Ahead of her meeting with him this week, Capito said that based on their recent conversations, she believes he is invested in making a deal happen.
“I think we can get to real compromise, absolutely, because we’re both still in the game,” she said Sunday on Fox News. “The president told me himself, ‘Let’s get this done.’ We realize this is not easy. I think we bring every idea that’s on the table into the negotiations to see how we can achieve this and get it across the threshold.”
Her comments came after days of Republicans seemingly trying to drive a wedge between Biden and his top aides on the negotiations. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told POLITICO last week that Biden indicated in their May 13 meeting he would allow money that Congress spends on other infrastructure projects each year to count toward the total, only to have administration staffers question it later. Other Republicans who were in the meeting made similar claims about Biden’s perceived willingness to deal on specific items and contrasting it with his staff’s reluctance.
It’s a tactic that Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, dismissed as a “backhanded compliment” and an attempt to isolate the president. “There is this confidence and respect for and what may even be admiration for Joe Biden and who he is,” said Daschle, a former colleague of the president. “And if they’re not getting the job done, they don’t want to blame him. They’re going to try to find somebody else to blame.”
While Republicans may publicly be insisting they are substantively close to Biden on an infrastructure package, White House aides continued to caution that the two sides are far apart. Though the GOP counteroffer was pitched as being in the ballpark of $1 trillion, the officials quickly noted that much of that was not new funding but reused Covid relief money.
The Republican focus on user fees to pay for infrastructure also represents a major point of contention. The Biden administration has said they consider new fees on people earning less than $400,000, another red line they are resistant to cross, particularly as Republicans have been unwilling to reopen Trump’s tax cuts to raise taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans.
White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said Biden is grateful for the spirit in which Capito and her colleagues are engaging with him — “as well as for their willingness to raise the level of funding in their latest counteroffer.”
“At the same time,” Bates added, “[the president] believes that additional areas critical to our economic competitiveness should be included, and that the American Rescue Plan is not a workable source from which to draw funding.”
For Democrats, there is concern that Republicans are dragging out the negotiations with no real intention of cutting a deal. McConnell’s recent declaration that his sole focus was on unifying Republicans to stand up to the administration, reminded many in Bidenworld of his pledge to thwart former President Barack Obama’s entire agenda.
“Is he really going to do what he did in 2008-2009, and on a lot of these issues just say he’s going to negotiate and hold the negotiations up so long and beat the hell out of it while he’s doing that?” asked Ted Kaufman, the former senator from Delaware who spent decades as a close Biden adviser.
“But,” Kaufman added, “maybe you can negotiate with Mitch. I’m in the school of thought that you keep working on the Republicans now in the country. But, you also keep working on Republicans in Congress, which is what [Biden is] doing. He’s not declaring war on them or anything like that. And, hope beats eternal — but don’t count on them.”
Biden said Friday he won’t wait much longer for an infrastructure agreement, and Senate Democrats in Congress are already paving the way to use the budget reconciliation process to pass an infrastructure bill with just 50 votes. But progressives say that even short extensions of negotiations are coming with a major price. They are worried about the toll the talks already are taking on the president’s ambitious agenda; and some have gone as far as contending that Democrats could pay a price by not being able to pass the entirety of the $4 trillion infrastructure plan the president proposed.
“The Obama-Biden administration thought they were close to getting the votes they needed too, while weeks turned into months and then nothing,” said Rahna Epting, the executive director of MoveOn, referencing Democrats’ failed strategy before ultimately going it alone on the Affordable Care Act. “The more time this drags out, the more time Republicans have to spew their lies and talking points in an effort to drag down the popularity of Joe Biden’s wildly popular [plan], and temper the real urgency felt by the American people.”
While the left may be agitating for Biden to cut off negotiations with Republicans on infrastructure, the real friction could come later, when more complicated and controversial agenda items become prioritized. Already, Biden’s old Republican colleagues are wondering how he can walk that tightrope.
“Joe could handle any kind of negotiation with Republicans of my time in the Senate,” said Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming. “But I think the thing that throws off Joe is he’s very hesitant to pull the trigger on things like the filibuster,” which Simpson referred to as “an automatic ass-kickin’ device.”
“The same people who were pulling on Biden when he was in the primary are pulling on him,” he said. “He’s not used to that kind of internal combustion engine.”
Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.