May 10, 2021
The Biden White House this week will make its most concerted push yet to find a middle ground with Republicans on the president’s massive infrastructure proposal.
And as it does, the president’s position on a potential compromise has come into sharper focus, according to interviews with more than a dozen White House officials, senior Democrats, and interest groups working with the White House.
Those officials say the White House is cognizant that any bipartisan proposal would likely involve only so-called “hard” infrastructure, things like roads, bridges and tunnels. They are also drawing few red lines — at least openly — heading into the latest round of negotiations.
The White House views Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s (R-W.V.) counteroffer to their own proposal as a constructive step towards a bipartisan deal. Should negotiations move forward, the remaining priorities within Biden’s roughly $4 trillion spending plans that are not included in a bipartisan compromise — from funding for home health care to expanded childhood education, family tax credits and increased taxes on those earning more than $400,000 — would likely be pushed through a separate budget reconciliation bill with only Democratic support. There is no expectation of Republican cooperation on those aspects of President Joe Biden’s proposal.
Despite Biden’s recent comments stressing that every part of the plan should be paid for, the White House is not unbending on that front. Lawmakers and other stakeholders who have recently met either with the president or top members of his team say the White House is more focused on getting Biden’s priorities into a legislative package than drawing a hard line on deficit spending.
Biden has publicly stressed his desire to avoid deficit spending. But a White House official said the only two things that the president would absolutely not consider were inaction and increased taxes on those with incomes below the $400,000 threshold. The official did not cite deficit neutrality as a red line. “He’s put his plan forward … [including] how he believes we should pay for it,” the official said of Biden. “If there are other suggestions, he’s willing to compromise.”
The White House is aiming to make significant progress with Republicans by Memorial Day. They would like to see a bill passed before the August recess. While a White House official said there was no hard deadline for Republicans to get on board, several senior Democrats say that if they cannot make headway with Republicans by Memorial Day, they’ll be forced to move forward without them.
“There will be and there should be a fish or cut bait moment,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said in an interview.
A set of White House meetings this week — Wednesday with congressional leaders and Thursday with key Republicans — is aimed at hashing out whether a compromise can be reached around the Capito proposal, which would fund only hard infrastructure. Officials see the latter meeting as a way to convince more Republicans that it’s in their best interest to support a bill that will bring pet projects back to their home states.
“We’re in a critical month,” Casey said. “I just don’t believe that we will be able to do anything that’s bipartisan other than some version of physical infrastructure only. And I don’t know the scope or dimensions of that. But most of what’s in both proposals we’re going to have to do by reconciliation.”
The Thursday meeting with Capito and other GOP members is part of a larger Hill outreach strategy from the White House that’s been underway for weeks. It’s been led by key members of Biden’s inner circle, including senior adviser and longtime Biden confidant Steve Ricchetti.
White House legislative affairs Director Louisa Terrell, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, and Ricchetti have met with or spoken to 10 senators — both Republicans and Democrats — in recent weeks, according to the White House. Senior White House officials have held hundreds of phone calls or meetings with chiefs of staff, congressional members, or directors in that time, including 120 Republicans, according to the White House.
“Shelley is negotiating in good faith. She’s real on this,” a senior Democrat briefed on White House discussions said of Capito. “She is not a Trojan horse.”
Susan Rice, head of the Domestic Policy Council, has also been heavily involved in discussions with lawmakers, including those hoping to get their pet projects attached to what ultimately passes. And Biden’s “Jobs Cabinet,” which includes Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh are frequently calling Republican senators, lawmakers and aides told POLITICO.
Democrats continue to see two possible paths forward: Either cobbling everything together as one bill, or passing a hard infrastructure bill with Republican support through regular order and then tackling the remaining items from Biden’s jobs and families plans moving through reconciliation. Progressives have warned that bipartisan negotiations will water down and delay any legislative victory. But for Biden, any bipartisan package would represent a significant political win, given that he campaigned on the promise of unity.
Former Sen. Chris Dodd, a longtime friend of Biden’s who worked on the presidential transition, said the president’s attempts to negotiate with Republicans on a traditional infrastructure package are genuine.
“It’s not phony with him in the slightest,” Dodd said, adding that Biden “will do everything possible” to craft a bipartisan bill with Republicans, particularly on traditional infrastructure. “It may be harder on the social safety net legislation, the Family Plan.”
Though many top Democrats have expressed cynicism that Republicans will ultimately sign on to a deal — with several pointing to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recent remarks that “100 percent” of his focus is on stopping Biden’s agenda — there is optimism within the White House that enough Republicans have parochial interests to support a compromise.
According to two people briefed on White House internal discussions, officials there are betting that if a handful of Republicans sign on to such a compromise, more will fall in line. For the White House, the benefit of this week’s meeting with GOP leadership is that it can show they’re sincerely attempting to work with Republicans on an issue voters value.
“We are going to be watching to see if we can begin using a shared vocabulary coming out of the Capito meeting — the numbers can come once we have the words and ideas right,” said one Senate aide.
Outside of Washington, Biden and Cabinet members have traveled to Republican-leaning districts to highlight the kinds of projects Biden’s jobs plan and families plan would fund. Like-minded interest groups are applying pressure in Washington and in congressional home districts to do the same.
The Service Employees International Union just launched a $3 million ad buy in battleground states, advocating for more jobs and employment protections for caregivers — an example of a “caring economy” Biden has advocated for in his infrastructure proposal but that Republicans have said has no place in it. In addition, SEIU advocates have flooded Congress in recent weeks making the case that supporting caregivers should be considered part of the country’s infrastructure.
“I would say we’re in the early stages of understanding whether it’s possible to sort of break an ideological pattern that we’ve already seen well established,” SEIU president Mary Kay Henry said in an interview, speaking of the likelihood of getting Republicans to support anything other than hard infrastructure.
Still, she added, “We will talk to every Republican in the Senate. We will get commitments from every Democrat because we are bound and determined to get the House and Senate to pass the American Job plan and Families plan, and send it to the president’s desk for signature before the August recess.”