WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Tuesday ended a weekslong effort to reach a deal with Senate Republicans on an expansive infrastructure plan, cutting off negotiations that had failed to persuade them to embrace his bid to pour $1 trillion into the nation’s aging public works system and safety-net programs.
It was a major setback to Biden’s effort to attract Republican support for his top domestic priority, which had always faced long odds over the size, scope and financing of the package. Most Republicans have made it clear they are willing to spend only a fraction of what Democrats want on a much narrower initiative, and balked at any tax increases to pay for it.
In a final telephone call on Tuesday with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the leading Republican negotiator, after days of back-and-forth discussions, Biden made clear that the divide was too large to bridge.
The breakdown did not close off the possibility of a bipartisan compromise entirely, and the White House signaled that the president would continue seeking one. He shifted his focus to a bipartisan group of centrist senators who have been working separately on an alternative, calling three of them personally to cheer on their efforts and encourage them to work with top White House officials to hammer out a deal. But even if the group can agree on a plan palatable to Biden, there is no guarantee that enough Republicans would accept it.
In a tacit acknowledgment of the long odds, Biden also spoke with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, about beginning work on a new budget blueprint, which Democrats could use to set up the fast-track reconciliation process that would allow them to avoid a filibuster and push through a package with no support from Republicans.
Schumer said Democrats would begin that process while the bipartisan talks continued, effectively preparing a backup plan if negotiations collapse, as many lawmakers in both parties believe is inevitable.
“It may well be that part of the bill that will pass will be bipartisan, and part of it will be through reconciliation,” Schumer said, speaking at his weekly news conference. “But we’re not going to sacrifice the bigness and boldness in this bill. We will just pursue two paths, and at some point, they will join.”
The demise of Biden’s talks with Capito was the latest instance in which the president, recognizing that he could not coax Republicans into embracing his ambitious and costly economic agenda, has walked away from the kind of bipartisan negotiations he has often said are a priority.
After sitting down with Republicans early this year in search of a compromise on his $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package, Biden quickly concluded that there was no bipartisan deal to be had and Democrats moved quickly to muscle the plan through Congress over unified Republican opposition.
In both instances, Biden’s approach reflected a concern at the White House and among several Democrats in Congress that, in courting support from Republicans who have signaled they have no interest in compromising, he could be forced to scale back vital pieces of his agenda, lose valuable time to enact it, or both.
Biden had already whittled down his infrastructure proposal substantially in the talks with Capito. While his initial plan totaled $2.3 trillion, he had proposed to cut it substantially in recent days, ultimately offering $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending. Republicans had proposed only a quarter of that amount as part of a $928 billion package that mainly used money from existing programs, and Capito on Friday offered a $50 billion increase, for a total of $330 billion in new spending — an amount Biden said was not enough.
“He informed Senator Capito today that the latest offer from her group did not, in his view, meet the essential needs of our country to restore our roads and bridges, prepare us for our clean energy future, and create jobs,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a statement, alluding to Biden’s “disappointment” that Republicans had offered so little new spending.
Republicans called Biden’s decision to pull out of the talks a slap in the face after they offered what they considered to be the largest infrastructure proposal ever put forward by their party.
“While I appreciate President Biden’s willingness to devote so much time and effort to these negotiations, he ultimately chose not to accept the very robust and targeted infrastructure package, and instead, end our discussions,” Capito said in her own statement.
While administration officials went to great lengths to emphasize Biden’s respect for Capito as a negotiator and her efforts to reach a compromise, it was clear he had already moved on, placing his hopes for a deal on the bipartisan Senate group. He spoke on Tuesday with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both Democrats.
Biden planned to continue talking with members of the group while traveling to Europe this week for the Group of 7 summit, Psaki said, and dispatched Steve Ricchetti, his counselor; Louisa Terrell, his head of legislative affairs; and Brian Deese, his National Economic Council director, to carry on talks while he was gone.
Terrell and Deese have also been in touch with members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, including Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., on an infrastructure plan. Gottheimer has been keeping in touch with Cassidy and Sinema.
Members of the Senate group, which has sought to position itself as a catalyst for compromise in an evenly divided chamber, have been quietly discussing their own framework for an infrastructure agreement for weeks. Not long after Capito reluctantly announced her talks with Biden were off, they stole away to a cramped basement office to meet between votes and further discuss their alternative.
“I’m trying to figure out a way that we can get an infrastructure package that can find support, so let’s make this happen,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “Around this place there’s a lot of things that appear to be dead that take on a life of their own afterward.”
But it remains unclear whether the group could successfully bridge the divides that derailed the discussions with Capito. Biden has repeatedly suggested increasing taxes to help pay for the plan and has outlined a sweeping economic agenda that broadens the traditional definition of infrastructure beyond core physical projects, which Republicans have repeatedly rejected.
Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, one of the Republicans who met with Biden early in the negotiations, accused the White House of backtracking on what Republicans believed were key early concessions.
“The closest we ever were was the day we were in the Oval Office with the President,” Barrasso said. He predicted that Biden would have no better luck working with the bipartisan group.
“I think it’ll be very difficult for Joe Biden to get 60 votes,” Barrasso said. “Whatever agreement he gets with them is not going to get him the rest of the Democrats.”
Several Democrats have long been wary of Biden’s outreach to Republicans, worrying that it would curtail or eliminate key provisions to secure a handful of votes. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vt.-I, chairperson of the Budget Committee, and his staff have been quietly working on a budget resolution, which is needed to use the reconciliation process.
Should Democrats pursue reconciliation to pass at least part of the package, it would be a challenging process for both chambers. Strict budgetary rules could force them to modify or jettison several provisions, and with razor-thin majorities in both chambers, they can afford little dissent — particularly in the Senate, where all 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats must remain united.
But the White House remained adamant that Biden was still exploring a variety of options to avoid inaction on a key policy item.
“The president is committed to moving his economic legislation through Congress this summer, and is pursuing multiple paths to get this done,” Psaki said.
In addition to Schumer, Biden also spoke to Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California about efforts to advance infrastructure legislation in the House this month, Psaki said. While she did not offer specifics, on Wednesday the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is set to consider legislation that would provide $547 billion over five years to maintain and adjust several existing transportation programs.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.