President Joe Biden and senior congressional Democrats plan to make a sustained push for a bipartisan agreement on a scaled-back infrastructure proposal over the next two weeks, according to aides and White House officials.
In the latest sign that Democratic leaders are giving bipartisan talks their blessings, aides say that a timeline for passing a budget resolution, the first step in the process that would allow Democrats to pass legislation without GOP votes, has slipped past May.
Biden has also made clear he sees the coming weeks as a key test for whether the parties can find a path forward, officials say. He’s instructed his staff to engage in continued negotiations and invited the lead Senate GOP negotiator, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, to the White House next week and informed her she could choose the colleagues she wants to attend, according to one official. He’ll also host congressional leadership next week.
“I’m meeting with my Republican friends up in the Congress to see number one, how much they’re willing to go for, what they think are the priorities and what compromises — I’m ready to compromise,” Biden said in Thursday remarks in Louisiana. “What I’m not ready to do is, I’m not ready to do nothing.”
The Democratic strategy is one that is equal parts sincere and necessity, aides and officials say. Biden has made clear in private conversations with Democrats he thinks there’s both a pathway to an agreement and overall value for the country to the effort, according to two people with knowledge of the conversations.
He also understands the political reality, they said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has the barest of majorities and moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia have said they won’t support Democrats moving forward unilaterally without a substantive bipartisan effort first.
While Manchin has become the public face of that position, it’s one held privately by a handful of other Democratic senators as well, according to two Senate Democratic aides.
Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat up for reelection in 2022, has echoed the sentiment.
“We all recognize we have failing infrastructure,” Kelly said recently. “My preference is to do this in a bipartisan way. Work together and come up with a plan that can get both the support of Democrats and Republicans.”
Still in the early stages
The bipartisan push, to the extent it progresses, is one that is both still in its early stages and still drawing significant skepticism and caution from Republicans and Democrats, according to aides from both parties. Republicans still harbor resentment from the Democrat-only approach that led to Biden’s cornerstone legislative achievement to this point: the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package.
Democrats, cognizant of a rapidly closing pre-midterm election year window, are wary of going down a potentially fruitless path with Republicans given the scale of the agenda they’re planning to pursue. It’s a lesson from former President Barack Obama’s 2009 legislative efforts that is brought up repeatedly, particularly by progressives who are concerned that momentum and support for a Biden agenda that would largely reshape the US social safety net for families — one Democrats are keenly aware will garner no GOP support — could be sapped in the process.
Two separate comments from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell only served to exacerbate that dynamic this week. McConnell said changes to the 2017 Republican-passed tax law — the financing mechanism for Biden’s infrastructure proposal — are a non-starter for his conference.
He also made clear his primary focus was stopping a Biden agenda he views as far too progressive.
“One hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” the GOP leader said this week in comments that quickly circulated through the White House and Democratic offices.
Both sides, at this point, say it’s up to the other to make concrete concessions on key issues in order to prove the talks can reach a conclusion. “That’s not exactly a recipe for progress,” one Senate GOP aide said when asked about the dynamic.
Biden, for his part, brushed off McConnell’s remarks, noting the Kentucky Republican had said similar things during Obama’s administration and the two still secured legislative deals. And McConnell said Thursday Republicans were “very interested” in talking about infrastructure along the lines of the proposal Capito has put on the table.
A necessary undertaking
In short, Biden doesn’t have the votes to pass any of his sweeping $4.1 trillion infrastructure and economic agenda without the effort to try and find a bipartisan path forward on the physical infrastructure piece of the plan in the coming days. It’s something White House officials and senior Democratic aides say they are keenly aware of as the coming weeks approach.
Still, the prospects for the current effort are, in the words of one official, “about as fluid as it gets,” with staff-level talks between the White House and Republicans described as positive, but also still in fairly early, if granular stages.
The primary focus has been on trading details on the spending side of the two proposals, saving the more complicated and politically volatile elements of how to pay for any deal until further along in the negotiations, one source familiar with the talks told CNN.
Democratic leadership has also directed committee chairmen to work alongside their ranking members to try and find possible places of agreement on infrastructure, one Democratic aide told CNN.
So far, members engaged in the conversations with the President remain upbeat about the progress, saying even if the plan were modest, it would still be a victory.
“I think the country wants us to work together,” Capito told CNN last week. “I am not a cynic. I am going to believe that as long as this is moving positive, I am going to believe it can work. “
‘Roughly zero overlap’
Still, the scale of the task ahead is significant. There is some optimism that the top-line spending level for any such proposal could be reconciled, though neither side has signaled any bottom line intentions beyond their initial proposals, aides and officials said.
But even if that were the case — something that is far from guaranteed — how to finance that number is an area where, in the words of one administration official, “there is roughly zero overlap.”
Republicans proposed paying for their proposal through unspent funds from the Covid relief package and user fees, the latter of which has been explicitly rejected by the White House. Biden has proposed increasing the corporate tax rate to 28%, from 21%, among a handful of increases proposed on corporations to finance his proposal.
He’s also spent the better part of the last week using his public remarks to explicitly outline what he views as the merits of the tax increases, making clear he has no intention of dropping the idea any time soon.
Still, Biden has opened the door to paring that back, saying repeatedly he’s willing to compromise on it and, on Thursday, moving away from explicitly calling for 28% and instead swapping it for “between 25 and 28.” But with Republicans opposed to touching the 2017 tax law at all, it’s unclear whether that shift will garner any good will.
Aides on both sides acknowledge that anything that comes of the talks will be modest in comparison to the ambitious and sweeping plans Biden rolled out this spring.
So far, negotiations have centered on an infrastructure bill that tackles roads, bridges, broadband and water rather than the re-imagined definition of infrastructure included in Biden’s American Families Plan, which included an extension of the expanded child tax credit and paid leave for every American worker.
But congressional Democrats and White House officials working on the negotiations say there is nothing stopping them from picking up and passing those programs later using reconciliation.
That decision, while seen as likely, eventually, is for now being pushed back.
“I am keeping my powder dry on that only because I can see variables here. We should make every effort we can to make it bipartisan,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, a central player in the legislative effort ahead. “There is an appetite here to do some things through regular order and then maybe using reconciliation if we have to, but I don’t think we want to state that as our first option.”
Biden also hasn’t settled on a preferred specific legislative process or sequence, officials say, and is willing to see how the next several weeks play out. But he does have one bottom line — one that he never fails to mention every time he talks about searching for compromise.
“I’m not ready to have another period where America has another infrastructure month and doesn’t change a damn thing.”