Biden’s frantic weekend saves infrastructure deal but leaves him on thinner political ice
That Joe Biden’s cherished bipartisan infrastructure plan was nearly destroyed by a few of his own ill-chosen words highlights both the fragility of the deal and his own hopes for a productive domestic presidency.
Biden’s extraordinary weekend effort to walk back his own remark on Thursday, interpreted as a threat to veto the bill if it did not arrive at his desk alongside a multi-trillion dollar Democratic spending plan, appears, for now, to have succeeded. Republican senators publicly accepted that his comment linking the two bills — “If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it” — was a flub. But the President still gave other GOP opponents an opening to portray the two measures as a deceptive two-step.
Biden’s damage control added to the mountain of issues for a presidency born in multiple crises, including the pandemic. On Sunday, US forces carried out airstrikes against Iran-backed militia on the Iraq-Syria border accused by the Pentagon of threatening US facilities and personnel in Iraq. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Europe building the US front against China. And ex-President Donald Trump’s wild Saturday night rally in Ohio added fuel to delusional claims of voter fraud dominating the GOP and further straining hopes of bipartisanship in Washington.
On the infrastructure bill, much will now depend on whether Republicans who support spending more than $1 trillion on infrastructure repairs still also perceive a political upside to their continued support. It’s unclear whether there are 10 Republican votes needed to vault the measure over a Senate filibuster to send it to an uncertain fate in the House, where progressives think it’s insufficient.
The parallel tracks of the two bills add up to a complicated formula constructed in order to get a 60-vote majority in the 50-50 Senate for infrastructure while offering an incentive to those Democrats who think the deal is far too small.
It reflects the fact that the political balance in Washington is too narrow for Biden to guarantee passing big bills. He faces trouble from his right among Republicans and moderate Democrats in the Senate and from the left of his own party, which has the capacity to rupture a narrow House majority.
Still, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” on Sunday that he now believed Biden would sign the infrastructure measure if it alone navigated a tricky trip through the Congress.
“I do trust the President,” Romney said, and referred to the highly unusual statement Biden issued over the weekend, which almost rallied the support of GOP senators against his Democratic “Families Plan.”
There, is of course, some classic Washington smoke and mirrors here.
“I’m not just signing the bipartisan bill and forgetting about the rest,” is what Biden had said Thursday.
But despite his efforts to walk that back, everyone understands the President will seek to pass a second bill — the White House has mentioned a figure of $4 trillion — containing much of the “human infrastructure” social spending taken out of the narrower deal to appease Republicans.
But the illusion that they are not linked is necessary to politically shield Republican senators who stuck out their necks as Biden pursues a bipartisan deal that is critical to honoring a central thematic thrust of his administration — bringing the country together and not treating opponents like enemies. The President almost inadvertently deprived his GOP partners of the deniability they need.
The positioning is also necessary to court moderate Democratic senators like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema who are already worried about the cost of a companion bill that some progressives want to reach $6 trillion.
Several other Republican senators joined Romney in vouching for the President’s sincerity after his weekend clean-up effort.
“It was a surprise to say the least that those two got linked, and I’m glad they’ve now been de-linked,” Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said on ABC “This Week.” Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy was, however, less categorical on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saying that he “hoped” Biden’s walk back was enough.
A frantic summer looms on Capitol Hill
The problem for the President is that semantic nuances cannot disguise the fact that there is zero room for error in a frantic summer as Democrats try to maximize what could be a narrow window of power.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is already adamant that if there isn’t a new Democratic spending bill there “ain’t” going to be an infrastructure bill. Her comments reinforced the impression that Biden was speaking the truth to liberal Democrats in tying the two measures together.
The episode when the infrastructure bill appeared to be teetering on the edge of destruction was all the more surprising since the author of the threatened disaster was none other than the President — a lonely voice for bipartisanship who spent months trying to build a coalition that many believe is unviable.
Thus, the feeling of celebration at a rare agreement between two parties, which have migrated to ever more radical poles, lasted only a matter of hours.
The comment alarmed Republicans who spent days talking with the White House and Democrats on an infrastructure deal covering roads and bridges, rail travel, clean energy and replacing lead water pipes in schools and houses. They were left exposed to claims from the right that they were acquiescing in a massive “socialistic” Democratic plan to raise taxes.
The situation was especially vexing since the President was using words like “trust” and “friends” to refer to his fellow dealmakers and held a joint photo-op with them outside the West Wing of the White House on Thursday.
In addition to releasing his statement on Saturday, the President called senators in the group to repair the damage. It is a testament to his sincerity in pursuing bipartisan solutions that many of them are willing to give him another chance.
But the group will face a forcefield of pressure from conservative media and activists who would like to deprive Biden of a victory and the approval of voters if he keeps his promise to work with the other side.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is highly motivated by an effort to win back the Senate for his party next year, quickly used Biden’s comment to portray the President as hostage to left-wing Democrats. Such a strategy may allow him to derail the infrastructure package within his own conference if he thinks it’s not politically advantageous, while laying blame on Democrats.
Any bill that makes the tortuous passage through a divided Congress needs luck and will experience near-death moments. The longer a measure waits to get passed, the more the inherent divides in Washington and outside political incentives erode its chances. So this may only be the first existential moment for the infrastructure bill.
Biden has work to do with Democrats as well
In this case, trust is not just at a premium between Biden and Republicans. One consequence of this flap may be that there has to be greater separation between the Democratic spending bill and the bipartisan infrastructure package than party leaders on the Hill would like.
That will require progressive Democrats — who warned they will not vote for infrastructure without trillions in new spending — to develop their own faith in a more moderate President’s capacity to enact a bill they see as a vital payoff for their trifecta of power in the House, the Senate and the White House.
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most visible progressives in the House, offered Biden some cover on Sunday — though some might read a hint of political pressure into her remarks.
“I think it’s very important for the President to know that … the Democratic caucus is here to ensure that he doesn’t fail, and we’re here to make sure that he is successful in making sure that we do have a larger infrastructure plan,” Ocasio-Cortez said on “Meet the Press.” She also offered a little wiggle room on the dollar size of the package that Biden hopes to use to secure spending for items like home health care for sick and elderly Americans.
While Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, laid out an opening bid for around $6 trillion, Ocasio-Cortez said the exact dollar figure was not the issue. “Although I do think that there is a level where we do go too small,” she said.
There were also signs on Sunday of flexibility from Manchin, who balked at linking the two bills together as the infrastructure talks concluded. The West Virginian, without whom Democrats cannot pass anything in the Senate, signaled openness to some corporate and capital gains tax increases.
A frantic weekend underscored how despite celebrations over a rare bipartisan deal at the White House last week, the fate of Biden’s domestic agenda remains vulnerable.
His senior adviser Cedric Richmond insisted, however, on “State of the Union” that “people have underestimated President Biden since day one.”
“We passed the rescue plan. We’re going to pass the Jobs Plan and we’re going to pass the American Families Plan.”