Democrats are engaging in broad, bipartisan conversations on infrastructure as the party weighs seriously whether to break off some of the bipartisan pieces of infrastructure first and tackle the bigger, more ambitious plan later in the summer.
The move comes out of both political necessity and an interest from President Joe Biden himself to give bipartisan talks a serious chance, sources have told CNN. In recent weeks, a handful of Senate moderates, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, have signaled they wouldn’t move forward with Democratic-only bill without seeing the administration and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill engage seriously with their Republican counterparts. That effort is underway now.
In a narrowly divided Senate where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can’t afford to lose a single vote, moving ahead with a smaller bipartisan infrastructure bill before tackling a broader bill that encompasses paid family leave, an extension of the child tax credit and other larger, legacy items may offer Democrats the best chance of giving Biden another legislative victory. While sources have emphasized that no final decisions have been made on the process, aides on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue emphasize that the effort to broker a deal with Republicans is both real and serious. How long it takes and whether it will ultimately be successful is another question entirely.
The bipartisan talks are happening at multiple levels. The first negotiations are happening between the White House and top Republicans on the relevant committees. As CNN reported Friday, Biden himself is engaged in these talks as the President spoke with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, over the phone last week after meeting with both her and Sen. Roger Wicker.
Biden plans to invite another bipartisan group of lawmakers to the White House this week, and administration officials tell CNN the staff talks between the White House and key GOP senate staffers have ramped up significantly in the last week.
Aides tell CNN that lawmakers will continue working in their committees to try and find agreement where they can on infrastructure. Those efforts will take not days but weeks, with the hope being that those negotiations in coordination with the White House talks can move the needle. Meanwhile, a small group of bipartisan members is also trying to find agreement among themselves. While those talks are still in the starting phases, the existence of multiple, bipartisan tracks underscores how serious this effort is.
With all of that said, Democrats are not going to completely cease work on their own priorities. Think of this like a dual track; bipartisan talks cannot go on forever. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont told CNN last week that he will try and advance a budget in May, a move that would begin the process for Democrats to use reconciliation down the road if either the bipartisan talks collapse or as a tool for Democrats to try and push through a more expansive package after a more, modest bipartisan bill passes.
The White House strategy
Biden has said it publicly for several weeks now, but administration officials describe his desire to try and find some kind of pathway toward a bipartisan agreement as genuine. His decision to launch direct engagement with Capito was driven by his read, from advisers and from Capito’s public statements, that she is a fair broker, one administration official told CNN. But officials caution that it remains early — and even a smaller bore infrastructure deal is packed with potential pitfalls, most notably on how it would be paid for.
Officials also make clear that while Biden is open to passing pieces of his plan separately (and that there are several vehicles that could allow pieces of his sweeping proposals to ride), the intent is still very much to get his agenda through.
In other words, bipartisan talks may lead to pared back deal, but in the words of one Democratic official: “Don’t think that means the ambitions would be pared back.” Instead, they’d likely just be wrapped into a future package designed to move with Democrats only.
A lesson learned
While this legislative process is night and day from the Covid relief effort, White House officials do make clear there was a lesson learned during that process they won’t hesitate to deploy this time around. Biden, in both internal and external polling, got credit for bipartisan outreach even though that package passed with Democrats only. White House officials view Biden’s words in public calling for bipartisan talks, along with his Oval Office meeting with bipartisan senators, as key to that.
This time around, Biden is doing the same thing, at some points with even more emphasis. Again, officials say his desire to find a bipartisan deal is real. But they’re also keenly aware that public perception on that front can be just as important, officials say.
Biden emphasized during his joint session address that he wanted GOP ideas and negotiations. But he also emphasized his bottom line: “I just want to be clear: From my perspective, doing nothing is not an option.”
It’s key to remember that these talks are going to be long, arduous and winding. This effort is not like Covid relief, multiple aides say, and members have stressed to CNN that the Covid relief bill was an emergency — crumbling roads and bridges may be a priority, they may be important, but this is not a piece of legislation that has to come together in 30 days.
This effort is about more than just action, it’s about how this effort defines the next several years of Biden’s presidency and the President has taken to heart that there is a serious interest in trying to find something all parties can agree on. Last week, the Senate passed a bipartisan water bill. And lawmakers are confident they could find agreement on a bipartisan surface transportation bill like they have in the past. Those items are far less ambitious than the plans Biden rolled out, but they are a start and Democratic leaders are aware they can always go back and pass more once Biden gets a bipartisan legislative win if they want to.
What to watch
Progressives are not going to be comfortable with spending much time on bipartisan talks, not because they are opposed to some of the items being discussed but because they view the progress as too incremental and as potentially hurting the chances of passing the more ambitious items.
Even before last week, Sanders had argued he wanted infrastructure passed in one part, not two. Holding the roads and bridges together with proposals to raise taxes and provide other expansions of social programs makes the massive expansion of social programs Biden rolled out more palatable to moderates. Progressives are aware that breaking the proposal apart could endanger their ability to pass the other pieces they’ve been working toward for years.