White House seeks bipartisan infrastructure push; Republicans wary

U.S. President Biden holds first Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden holds first Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 1, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

President Joe Biden could find himself under pressure on Monday to prove his much-touted interest in working with Republicans in Congress, as lawmakers return from their spring break to grapple with his $2.3 trillion proposal to improve U.S. infrastructure.

The Democratic president appears to be losing political capital with a group of Senate Republicans, including Susan Collins and Mitt Romney, who may represent his best chance of enacting legislation garnering the support of both parties.

Biden’s party holds slim majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate, meaning he can ill afford to lose Democratic votes. That has empowered and emboldened Democratic moderates such as Senator Joe Manchin who have outsize influence over the fate of Biden’s ambitious legislative priorities including the infrastructure package, gun control and others.

Biden, who previously served for 36 years in the Senate, has repeated since becoming president in January his interest in collaborating with Republicans. He is expected to host Republicans and Democrats from both chambers of Congress at the White House on Monday to discuss a way forward on infrastructure.

“Even before the American Jobs Plan was announced, the President himself and White House senior staff were briefing Republican lawmakers on the proposal,” said a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He’s enthusiastic about continuing to be in close touch with both parties about this historic investment in the backbone of the country.”

But increasing numbers of Republicans are accusing Biden of having no sincere interest in working with them, saying his overtures have amounted to little more than window dressing for a go-it-alone Democratic strategy. Biden won congressional passage of a major COVID-19 relief bill without Republican support.

“The president has regrettably misled the public on every step of every piece of major legislation he has sent to Congress. The COVID bill wasn’t about COVID. This infrastructure bill isn’t about infrastructure,” said Representative Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee set to play a key role in the infrastructure battle.

Biden can also expect a more skeptical reception from a group of 10 Senate Republicans who met the president on the COVID-19 relief legislation in February only to have their calls to shrink the package dismissed. Democrats subsequently used a process in Congress that enabled them to pass his $1.9 trillion bill without Republican support.

The White House official noted that the COVID-19 bill was a response to a raging national crisis, adding that negotiations on the jobs and infrastructure plan would be a more deliberative process.

‘Not an inch’

But Biden angered 10 Senate Republicans last week by saying they had been unwilling to compromise.

“I would’ve been prepared to compromise, but they didn’t. They didn’t move an inch. Not an inch,” Biden said on Wednesday.

Biden may have a hard time convincing the Republican senators he means business about bipartisanship on infrastructure.

“That kind of bait and switch, coupled with President Biden’s ‘not one inch’ comments, certainly made an impression on the group of 10 about where this is all going,” said a Republican congressional aide close to February’s bipartisan talks who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The administration’s words ring hollow.”

Biden’s infrastructure bill is already a hard sell for Republicans. They object to provisions addressing climate change and boosting human services such as elder care, as well as a proposal to increase corporate taxes that had been lowered in Republican former President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cut law.

Republican congressional aides have said lawmakers in their party are coalescing around a more-targeted infrastructure approach that would focus on improvements to roads, bridges, ports and broadband access and pay for itself through user fees and tax incentives.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons, one of Biden’s closest congressional allies, has said several Senate Republicans could be willing to support a higher gasoline tax and a road tax on electric vehicles to fund a targeted infrastructure bill.

Top Democrats have shown no sign of willingness to scale back Biden’s proposal. Coons said Biden could be willing to negotiate with Republicans through the month of May before proceeding without them.

Thinking big

“Always, in legislation, you always listen and you will always see where you can find common ground, but you got to think big. You can’t think small when we’re talking about the greatness of America,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who aims to pass Biden’s package by July 4.

Republican support could be crucial. Without it, Democrats would have to rely on the parliamentary process called reconciliation that lets the 100-seat Senate pass certain legislation with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes needed to advance most bills.

With the Senate split 50-50, reconciliation would require the backing of all Democrats and a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Kamala Harris. Manchin, who represents Republican-leaning West Virginia, has put Biden and Democratic leaders on notice that he may not back using reconciliation this time after it was used to pass the COVID-19 measure.

Democrats hold a seven-seat margin in the House. Liberal Democrats have been arguing for an even-bigger infrastructure bill. Democrats from northeastern states also want to reverse Trump’s cap on federal income tax deductions for state and local taxes.