As the President faces growing frustration within his own Democratic ranks, the White House is injecting new urgency into Joe Biden’s protracted and so far inconclusive talks with Republicans on a bipartisan infrastructure package.
However, Biden’s position is weakened by the Senate’s delicate 50-50 split, raising doubts about whether Democrats can ram through a larger, alternative plan if Republicans refuse to negotiate.
The infrastructure showdown is a key test of the President’s promise to demonstrate that, even in a hostile Washington, the two parties can work together to make the political system work for all Americans.
Despite vastly different perceptions of the definition of infrastructure and the monetary size of the package, the White House has spent weeks in talks with a group of Republican senators who say they are seeking compromise.
The process will blow past an earlier target date of a deal by Memorial Day on Monday, but Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made it clear on Sunday that the President sees the window for negotiations closing quickly.
“I think we are getting pretty close to a fish-or-cut-bait moment,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.” “We believe in this process, but we also very much agree that this can’t go on forever.” Talks will continue during the congressional recess, but a final decision about the way forward is unlikely until lawmakers return next week, with Buttigieg saying, “We need a clear direction” by June 7.
However, the former presidential candidate expressed optimism about the talks on a deal that is roughly $700 billion apart between the White House and Republicans after a series of counterproposals reduced Biden’s original $2.2 trillion price tag.
“I will tell you that, on the fishing side of things, the negotiations have been healthy,” Buttigieg said.
There are conceptual, content, and accounting differences between the two sides, with talks between the administration and Republicans, set to resume next week.
Last week, the Senate Republican group countered Biden’s amended $1.7 trillion proposals with a $928 billion offer. Republicans claim they were aware that President Obama was open to a $1 trillion deal. However, there are concerns about how much new spending would be included in the package that is not already included in other bills. The White House has a broad vision of infrastructure that includes home health care for the sick and elderly, as well as funding for green energy development. Republicans prefer to spend money on traditional infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, and airports. Republicans are also opposing Democratic plans to pay for the package by repealing corporate tax cuts included in former President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax law, one of the administration’s few legislative victories.
Given the tense atmosphere in Washington and the fact that talks on this issue have dragged on for weeks with no agreement in sight, it was notable that the Republican senator leading the charge, West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito, was upbeat and publicly praised the President.
She said Biden told her on the phone two days ago: “‘Let’s get this done.’ And I think that means he has his heart is in this, we have had some back and forth with the staff who pulled back a little bit, but I think we’re smoothing out those edges,” Capito said on “Fox News Sunday.”
The main sticking points in the deal, according to Capito, are the corporate tax issue and the “definition of infrastructure.” “Roads and bridges, waterways, ports, lead pipes, transit, airports, and also the new infrastructure that we must have everywhere,” she said, adding that Republicans were focusing on “roads and bridges, waterways, ports, lead pipes, transit, airports, and also the new infrastructure that we must have everywhere, broadband.”
It can be difficult to tell whether the sides are shadow boxing and increasing pressure on one another to reach an agreement or are simply positioning to blame the other if the push for an agreement fails at key moments.
Given the still-existing philosophical divides and the fact that a bipartisan agreement on anything would go completely against the grain in polarized Washington, it might be prudent to temper expectations, despite the optimistic rhetoric on both sides.
And, following signs of impatience from the party leadership late last week, the jockeying between the White House and Republicans is beginning to grate on Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York channelled that frustration and scepticism of Republican motives when she said on “State of the Union” that the time for talking about infrastructure had passed. This was heightened after the GOP last week blocked an effort to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurgency.
With the help of Vice President Kamala Harris and her deciding vote, Democrats may be able to use a budget mechanism known as reconciliation to get the bill through the 50-50 Senate.
However, such a strategy would be more than just an admission of defeat for Biden’s efforts to pass bipartisan legislation. It would also necessitate the support of moderate Democratic senators, particularly West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, for a bill that contains spending levels that he opposes.
Manchin has demonstrated his willingness to use his clout as a swing vote, even when pressed by his party, and he insists that major legislative initiatives must be reached through compromises between Republicans and Democrats.
In March, for example, his opposition to a Democratic deal to increase federal unemployment benefits prompted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to postpone a vote for several hours until the West Virginian was satisfied.
So far, Manchin has dismissed the possibility of using reconciliation.
One big question remains unanswered: will Manchin consider Biden’s persistent and good-faith efforts to secure Republican support sufficient motivation to vote for a purely Democratic bill if the deal falls through?