WASHINGTON — Despite sharing pleasantries at the White House, Republicans congressional leaders signaled no willingness Wednesday to embrace President Joe Biden’s ideas for a massive infrastructure investment, insisting instead on a much smaller package and rejecting the idea of raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy to pay for it.
Biden hosted the top four congressional leaders for the first time and said in the Oval Office session that he was willing to compromise on his $4 trillion jobs and families proposals. After nearly two hours, both sides agreed on the need for public works spending and they emerged pledging to work together — as much as they can.
But the stark resistance from Republicans to the size and scope of the package, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s “red line” against corporate and upper-income tax increases leave Democrats in the familiar position of embarking on potentially drawn-out negotiations that may, or may not, produce a bipartisan deal.
“We are going to see if we can reach some consensus on a compromise,” Biden said at the start of the meeting.
Asked by a reporter how he expected to do that, Biden quipped: “Easy, just snap my fingers, it’ll happen.”
The gathering brought together Biden’s top Democratic allies — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York — as well as McConnell and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California. Vice President Kamala Harris sat next to Biden.
While it was the first such meeting of Biden’s presidency, the setting was a familiar White House scene of powerful party leaders, who can make or break an administration’s legislative agenda, formally arrayed around the president. The mood can be seen as friendly or tense. The last such encounter ended with Pelosi standing to confront then-President Donald Trump.
Schumer told reporters back on Capitol Hill that it was a “good meeting” and that the two sides would “try hard” to work together.
“We said that we would explore the way — the places where we could agree on — and come to a bipartisan agreement on those,” he said. “That’s the first step.”
Republican leaders, however, rejected the way that Biden has stretched the definition of public works beyond traditional roads and bridges to include child care and other so-called human infrastructure. They said they told Biden directly they will refuse to undo the 2017 tax cuts to pay for it.
“That’s our red line,” McConnell said outside the White House. “We’re interested in trying to get an outcome.”
Biden, who spent decades as a Delaware senator, has long showcased his relationships with Republicans and made his ability to work with the GOP as central to his governing philosophy. But a growing number of Democrats believe it is wasted energy, given their view of the GOP as too often obstructionist.
Just days before the meeting, McConnell said “100% of my focus is stopping” the Biden administration, a comment that evoked his pledge early in Barack Obama’s presidency to make the Democrat a one-term president. Obama served two terms.
Balking at the size of Biden’s plan, McConnell has indicated that a proposal of no more than $800 billion, funded by gas taxes and other fees on users, is within reach for Republicans.
McCarthy said he impressed on the president the need for changing environmental reviews so infrastructure projects can be developed quickly, a potential new point of contention with Democrats.
“There’s an opportunity we can work together,” McCarthy said.
The meeting came at a crucial time: House and Senate are laboring through the details of Biden’s proposals, with the Democratic leaders beginning to assess support. There is no room to spare if they decide to go it alone without Republican votes.
In recent days, Biden has opened the door to compromise, saying he was willing to negotiate the size of the overall investment and his tax plan to pay for it. He has suggested lifting the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% and said any personal income tax increases would not fall on those earning less than $400,000 a year.
But Republicans view the 2017 tax law, which lowered many individual tax rates and dropped the corporate tax rate from 35%, as their signature domestic accomplishment when they held power.
White House aides were not surprised by McConnell’s declaration of defiance this week but believe that some common ground is possible. Public polling suggests that the infrastructure plan, much like the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief law enacted in March, is popular with voters. But the COVID-19 bill did not receive a single GOP vote.
Biden told the congressional leaders at the top that he ran for office to be a leader for “all Americans,” not just the Democrats and those who voted for him.
According to a White House statement about the private session, Biden told the lawmakers that during “this unprecedented moment” — the coronavirus pandemic — they should rise above disagreements.
Biden also emphasized that “the real competition” is not between parties but among the United States and the rest of the world, the White House said.
Aides said to expect Biden to host more Republicans in the weeks before a soft Memorial Day deadline the White House set for gauging how feasible a bipartisan bill may be.
On Thursday, Biden was scheduled to meet with six Republican senators, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, to hear their plans for a smaller and more narrowly defined infrastructure bill.
The president has hosted a trio of key Democratic senators at the White House already this week, including moderate Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona; the White House needs to keep on board for the massive spending.