White House cranks up the pressure as infrastructure talks drag on
By Stephen Collinson
The White House is injecting new urgency into Joe Biden’s protracted and so far inconclusive talks with Republicans on a bipartisan infrastructure package, as the President faces rising frustration within his own Democratic ranks.
But the delicate 50-50 balance in the Senate represents an inbuilt vulnerability in Biden’s position, adding to uncertainty over whether Democrats can ram through a bigger, alternative plan if Republicans leave the table.
The infrastructure showdown is a critical test of the President’s promise to show that in a scorched earth environment in Washington, the two parties can make the political system work in a unified effort to help all Americans.
The White House has spent weeks in talks with a group of Republican senators who say they are seeking compromise, despite vastly differing perceptions of the definition of infrastructure itself and the monetary size of the package.
On Monday, the process will blow through an earlier target date for a deal by Memorial Day, but Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made clear on Sunday that the President sees the window for the talks narrowing fast.
“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 to 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.
But the former presidential candidate did strike a note of optimism about the talks on a deal that has the White House and Republicans roughly $700 billion apart after a series of counterproposals trimmed the original $2.2 trillion price tag of Biden’s proposal.
“I will tell you that, on the fishing side of things, the negotiations have been healthy,” Buttigieg said.
Where the differences lie
There are differences in concept, content and accounting between the two sides, with negotiations between the administration and Republicans set to continue in the coming week.
The Senate GOP group last week made a $928 billion counteroffer to Biden’s amended $1.7 trillion proposal. The Republicans say they understood that the President was open to a $1 trillion deal. But there are potential pitfalls on how much new spending that is not already part of other bills would actually be in the package. The White House has an expansive view of infrastructure that includes home health care for sick or elderly Americans and funding to develop green energy. Republicans are keener to spend money on more traditional projects like roads, bridges and airports. Republicans are also resisting Democratic hopes of paying for the package by reversing corporate tax cuts in former President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax law, one of the few legislative triumphs of the previous administration.
Given the bitter mood in Washington, and the fact that talks on this issue have dragged on for weeks with a deal consistently out of reach, it was notable that the Republican senator leading the effort, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, 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.”
Capito identified the main sticking points of the deal as the corporate tax issue and the “definition of infrastructure.” She said Republicans were focusing on “roads and bridges, waterways, ports, lead pipes, transit, airports, and also the new infrastructure which we must have everywhere, broadband.”
‘Our moment to act’
At moments that could be potential political turning points, it can be hard to tell whether the sides are shadow boxing and hiking pressure on one another to seek a deal or are just positioning to blame the other if the push for an agreement fails.
Given the gaping philosophical positions that still exist and the fact that a bipartisan deal on anything would completely go against the grain in polarized Washington, it might be wise to temper expectations despite the optimistic talk on both sides.
And the jockeying between the White House and Republicans is beginning to grate on Democrats on Capitol Hill, following signs of impatience from the party leadership that emerged late last week.
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York channeled that frustration and skepticism of Republican motives — heightened after the GOP last week blocked an effort to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection — when she said on “State of the Union” that the time for talking on infrastructure had already elapsed.
“We have to answer that moment with bold reforms, and I think waiting any longer for Republicans to do the right thing is a misstep,” Gillibrand told Tapper. “I don’t think there’s necessarily goodwill behind all negotiations, and I think the American people elected us to solve the problem of Covid, to rebuild the economy, rebuild the infrastructure, and I think it’s our moment to act.”
If Biden ends the infrastructure talks, he would then have the option to push a potentially wider package closer to his original aspirations through the Senate on a partisan basis. Democrats could potentially use a budget mechanism known as reconciliation to pass the bill through the 50-50 Senate with the help of Vice President Kamala Harris and her deciding vote.
But such a strategy would not just represent an effective admission of defeat for Biden’s quest to pass bipartisan legislation. It would also require moderate Democratic senators, especially West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, to support a bill that includes a level of spending that he finds troubling.
Manchin has shown he is willing to use his power as a swing vote — even under fierce pressure from his own party — and he insists that big-ticket legislative efforts must be compromises between Republicans and Democrats. In March, for instance, his opposition to a Democratic deal on boosting federal unemployment benefits forced Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to hold open a vote for hours until the West Virginian could be satisfied.
So far, Manchin has thrown cold water on the idea of using reconciliation.
One big unanswered question: will Manchin consider Biden’s prolonged and good faith efforts to secure Republican support a sufficient incentive to vote for a purely Democratic measure if the deal fails?