WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and top Democrats are signaling privately they are willing to make concessions over Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, or break it into chunks, if that will attract even a handful of Republican votes and allow them to notch a bipartisan win, people familiar with the strategy say.
The president spoke recently with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and suggested he was contemplating her counteroffer of roughly $568 billion more seriously than he viewed the Republican response to his COVID-19 relief legislation, which he dismissed quickly as inadequate.
Top Senate Democrats are regularly meeting with their Republican counterparts, and some have adopted a mantra — “slow, steady and piecemeal” — to signal their willingness to seek bipartisanship on smaller-scale bills, even if that doesn’t square neatly with Biden’s initial vision of immediate transformational change.
Among those actively talking to congressional Republicans are Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., a longtime friend of Biden’s who is in frequent contact with the White House. Buttigieg has spoken to more than 20 members of Congress about the infrastructure plan, an aide said.
The new, more conciliatory strategy stands in sharp contrast with Democrats’ approach to the COVID relief package, which they viewed as more urgent and pushed through quickly with no Republican votes. It reflects Biden’s strong desire to head into the 2022 midterms with at least one bipartisan achievement, as well as the anxiety of some centrist Democrats about Biden’s sweeping plans.
“We have a little more time for the consideration of this, and the percolation of these proposals, to have broader consultation and dialogue,” said Steve Ricchetti, a top White House aide. “There’s more receptivity on the Republican side to having that dialogue, and they also see the potential to reach some common ground here.”
Still, it is far from clear whether any Republicans will end up signing onto the plans, or whether the current maneuvering will end up being mostly for show. Biden has not signaled just how much he is willing to scale back his plans, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has a history of working to deny a Democratic president bipartisan achievements.
But Capito, for example, has suggested that her talks with the Biden team could be fruitful, saying she sees a sharp difference between the White House attitude this time and its unilateral approach to the COVID relief bill.
Now, there is a “significant” level of back-and-forth between the administration and the Senate Republicans who were involved in crafting a counterproposal, she added. “I don’t think there’s been, you know, stop signs or caution flags or anything like that that I’m seeing to think that we shouldn’t be negotiating in earnest,” she said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”
Some Democrats are hunting for a framework to sell the infrastructure proposals that doesn’t sound too liberal, hoping to frame it as what they call “bold moderation,” which they hope might be less objectionable to centrists of both parties.
These early moves provide a clue as to how Biden will approach the next phase of his presidency, coming off a first 100 days dominated by the coronavirus. While his initial actions were cheered by many on the left, the new strategy reflects calls from moderate Democrats to show a greater openness to bipartisan compromise.
White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, along with Ricchetti, has invited moderate lawmakers to the White House for talks. And Ricchetti has been spotted in the halls of Congress meeting with top Republicans on infrastructure matters.
White House officials have also asked the congressional leadership of both parties to a meeting on May 12, and Biden has invited Capito to the White House.
Some of the outreach involves contacts between individual senators on specific issues. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., for example, said she’s been in touch with GOP colleagues in search of infrastructure items they might support, like rural broadband.
“It’s a starting point,” she said of Biden’s proposals.
Biden’s new approach is driven in part by the alarm of Republicans and some moderate Democrats over the reach and scope of several of his early proposals.
Biden last week introduced a $1.8 trillion plan for a significant expansion of the federal safety net, along with an array of new taxes to pay for it.
In his recent speech to Congress, Biden argued for action to enhance racial equity, further restrict gun sales and impose new checks on police officers. That came a week after a far-reaching climate plan that would transform much of the U.S. economy.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a centrist Democrat, said he had concerns with the expansive vision that Biden outlined in his speech.
Regarding tax hikes, Manchin said, “you want make sure you’re competitive.” He added, “[If] there’s something you’re missing, if there’s loopholes or this or that … But just raising the rate — it’d be the highest rate in the world. Not the best idea in the world.”
Democrats cannot pass any legislation without Manchin’s support in the 50-50 Senate, and he has made it clear he considers Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan far too big.
“That makes me very uncomfortable,” he said. “Are we going to be able to be competitive and be able to pay for what we need in the country? We’ve got to figure out what our needs are, and maybe make some adjustments.”
Capito, his fellow West Virginian, is emerging as another critical partner for Biden. Her $35 billion water infrastructure bill cleared the Senate last week, a move that many lawmakers saw as potentially the start of a partisan thaw.
Biden spoke with Capito about infrastructure on Thursday, praising of their talk afterward. “We had a good conversation,” he told reporters, adding that he invited Capito to come to the White House as early as next week. “She seemed very serious and very positive about wanting to do something about it.”
Still, some Republicans feel burned by what they see as Biden’s feigned show of bipartisanship during the talks on the COVID package. And they are frustrated that the White House continues to advocate for undoing some of President Donald Trump’s signature tax cuts, with no indication it is considering the financing options that Republicans have proposed, such as mileage taxes or user fees for electric vehicles.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said GOP senators want to know how flexible the White House is when it comes to how the package is funded, adding, “There’s not an appetite to undo the 2017 tax act among our members.”
“You know, at least our members [feel] like they’re approaching this in good faith, with an eye on the solution,” Thune said. “They’re hoping the Democrats are doing the same thing.”
Democrats insist the president’s outreach is sincere. But they stress that he will not endlessly pursue a deal with Republicans if it seems out of reach.
Biden is taking “an openhanded approach to bipartisanship: ‘Bring your ideas, let’s sit down and negotiate,’ ” Coons said. But “we can’t wait forever.”
Many Democrats agree that the current talks are not like those over COVID relief, and said they see the Republicans’ offer on infrastructure as a start.
“It’s a little different now,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. “Even though their first proposal was way short, it’s a different process about a different bill in a different time. And I think there’s still plenty of time to keep engaging.”
Democrats also hope the unexpected popularity of Biden’s COVID relief package, plus the desire to campaign on solid accomplishments such as restoring roads and bridges, could be enough to entice some Republicans to join them. And Biden may need to attract only a few Republicans to proclaim the package bipartisan.
“They have a lot of needs in their home states,” Casey said.
The Pennsylvania Democrat sounded almost giddy about the notion of passing broad legislation after years of gridlock, noting that he’s been introducing a bill on expanding prekindergarten since 2007.
“We’ve been at this for a while, and now we have a moment to not just make investments for the sake of doing so, but to have a transformative impact on the lives of tens of millions of people who’ve been left out for 40 years,” Casey said.
All this jockeying makes some liberals nervous that Biden’s overtures could lead to a significantly smaller infrastructure package than his initial $2.25 trillion proposal. A bipartisan bill — particularly one focused on roads, bridges and internet — could sap the energy for a larger package containing liberal priorities like elder care and child care, they fear.
“The president has laid out so well what we need to get done to build back better and create good union jobs,” said Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich. “If the GOP wants to work with us to achieve that vision, I’m all for it. But I don’t think we should let their opposition force us to do less.”
For Biden, the stakes are higher than a single infrastructure bill. He hopes to use the next phase of his administration to help restore faith in government, a potential counter to the decades-long argument by Republicans that government always must be sharply limited.
“Being the ‘no party’ works if people are convinced government can’t do any good,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic consultant. “Then the no party actually can succeed — and not only succeed, but elect a Donald Trump to try and take the whole d— thing down.”
But the country may be in a different place, Trippi added. Americans relied on the Trump administration to oversee the rapid development of a vaccine and the Biden team to ramp up production and distribution. There are elevated concerns about climate change and widespread support for fixing infrastructure.
“None of those are doable without the government being effective,” Trippi said. “There’s a realization that someone who knows what they’re doing and understands how government works — maybe they can make it work in a way that’s relevant to me and my life. That’s opened up a big window for him to try and get his agenda through.”
To that end, some Democrats are pushing to undo the perception that any big program is inherently liberal. “Joe Biden is defining what it means to be a moderate in this moment, the way that Bill Clinton did in 1993,” said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group.
Shaheen, who hails from a swing state, said that she tries to avoid labels like “liberal” or “moderate” when discussing the infrastructure plan back home in New Hampshire. Instead, she focuses on how the money can be spent to boost local communities.
“We’re just going to talk to as many people as are willing and want to engage on this, and see if we can find strong compromises that everybody feels they can support,” Ricchetti said.
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The Washington Post’s Jeffrey Stein and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.