It didn’t take long for President Joe Biden to show how difficult it will be to achieve his twin goals of a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a massive package of Democratic domestic priorities.
And the intensity of the ensuing exchange underscored that the stakes in what looms as a monthslong battle will be crucial to the success of his presidency.
No sooner had Biden and a bipartisan group of senators announced an agreement at the White House than the president gave his GOP critics some ammunition. He said he had no intention of signing the bipartisan bill until he could also sign the larger, partisan measure.
“If this is the only one that comes to me, I’m not signing it,” Biden said. “It’s in tandem.”
Biden’s pairing of the two bills was hardly a surprise. The White House had signaled the two-track approach for weeks. And several Senate Republicans acknowledged, even while negotiating the bipartisan measure, they expected Democrats to seek additional funds for their domestic priorities in the so-called budget reconciliation bill.
Still, some negotiators displayed mock outrage. “If he’s gonna tie them together, he can forget it,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. “That’s extortion!”
But that’s exactly what several fellow GOP negotiators had predicted.
Biden then sought to quell the revolt — and apparently succeeded, at least for now. In a lengthy statement, he said the two weren’t dependent on one another, that he would, of course, sign any bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed. That prompted several Republican signatories to declare, as Portman put it on ABC’s “This Week,” “now, we can move forward.”
Biden’s initial statement that he would only sign both — or neither — was a bit more explicit than some allies might have preferred. They were seeking to convince progressive Democrats to back a less robust bipartisan “physical infrastructure” measure than they prefer by promising passage of the second bill reflecting their party’s so-called “human infrastructure” priorities like expanded day care, preschool and community college funds. And the initial GOP response reflected internal party pressure against helping the Democratic president score a signal success.
Even without the last-minute theatrics, the twin measures always faced an especially tricky path, given the tiny Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Success will require the following:
- Enough Republican support in the face of likely opposition from Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell to ensure the infrastructure compromise gets the needed 60 Senate votes and the required House majority, especially since some Democratic liberals may oppose it.
- The votes of the two most conservative Senate Democrats, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, for the larger human infrastructure package. It will need support from all 50 Senate Democrats, because it is unlikely to attract any Republican votes.
- Support for the bipartisan infrastructure bill from leading House Democratic progressives like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Squad members who may consider it inadequate. It asks them to put the party’s overall agenda ahead of their personal preferences.
- Senate approval of both parts before the House votes on either, a pledge Pelosi made to mollify progressive concerns.
To complicate matters, the upcoming congressional agenda also includes the always controversial measure to increase the legal limit on the federal debt, which Democrats will likely have to pass without Republican votes, and bills funding the government after Oct. 1.
To do all this, Biden and the Democrats have two things in their favor. First, Biden’s job approval remains steady, and there is widespread public support for rebuilding the physical infrastructure with overdue projects in every state and district.
Second, Democratic lawmakers recognize this is their chance to pass many long-standing policy priorities and to show the nation before next year’s midterm elections they can govern. “This is our one big shot,” Ocasio-Cortez conceded on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Still, many Republicans may ultimately be reluctant to cast votes that could make the Democratic president look good. That’s why many pessimists in town believe that, in gridlocked Washington, it’s wiser to bet something won’t happen than that it will.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.