WASHINGTON — A fragile bipartisan infrastructure deal appeared to be moving forward once again Sunday, as moderate Republicans said they had been reassured that President Joe Biden would not hold it hostage while Democrats simultaneously work on a larger, partisan economic package.
After 48 hours of chaos, the statements by leading Republicans prompted a sigh of relief for the White House, where Biden and top aides had worked through the weekend to keep the eight-year, $1.2 trillion investment to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure from falling apart. GOP negotiators even suggested that they could now begin drafting the bill and said they believed it would win enough Republican votes to pass the Senate next month.
“The waters have been calmed,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.
Still, the whole episode underscored just how precarious a path the president and his allies face in the months ahead, as they try to steer the two separate and costly spending plans into law. They have laid out a complex strategy in which the success of each bill hinges on the other and the balancing of priorities between not only Republicans and Democrats, but within the Democratic Party itself.
While the bipartisan bill can be passed through regular order if it retains enough Republican support, Democrats plan to use a fast-track budget process known as reconciliation to bypass the 60-vote filibuster threshold and unilaterally enact the rest of Biden’s proposal, which includes tax increases, sweeping climate plans, health care provisions and investments in child care. If they can pull off both, Biden could burnish his reputation as a bipartisan deal-maker and ensure that much of his economic agenda is locked in place.
The immediate cause for Republican concern came Thursday, just hours after the president and lawmakers from both parties unveiled with great fanfare their plan to invest in crumbling roads, bridges, high-speed internet and green projects. Speaking with reporters later that day, Biden said he would not sign the bipartisan deal without Congress passing a much more expensive set of tax increases and spending programs that conservatives loathe.
Republicans, who doubt Democrats can secure the votes needed to pass the second partisan package, balked. They said that they never would have signed onto a deal strictly conditioned on the success of policies they oppose, and Biden’s team was forced to clean up the comments. After a series of private phone calls, the president issued a lengthy statement Saturday clarifying that he never meant to threaten a veto and conceding that Republicans were “understandably upset.”
“I was very glad to see the president clarify his remarks because it was inconsistent with everything we had been told along the way,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I’m glad they’ve now been de-linked and we can move forward with a bipartisan bill that is broadly popular not just among members of Congress but the American people.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., concurred on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” calling the framework agreed to by the two parties “a great deal.”
“It is actually going to provide the infrastructure that American people want, that they need, that will make our country more prosperous for all Americans, so I hope it’s enough,” he said of Biden’s clarification. “But I’ll continue to work for the bill.”
For now, the bipartisan deal seems to be having the effect on Democrats that Biden and party leaders on Capitol Hill were also hoping for. Democratic leaders are trying to hold together the narrowest of majorities in the House and Senate, and some of their most moderate members insisted on trying to find bipartisan common ground on the president’s vast domestic agenda wherever they could.
Pleased that a bipartisan package he helped craft would be moving forward, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a key Democratic swing vote, said Sunday that he was prepared to back a larger bill using the fast-track process to get around Republicans. He said he was “all for” using it to address “human infrastructure” and was willing to raise corporate tax rates to 25% from 21%, and capital gains taxes to 28% for top earners to finance it.
“We’ve worked on the one track. We’re going to work on the second track. There’s an awful lot of need,” Manchin said on ABC.But Manchin dismissed financing the spending with more debt, as prominent liberals like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have argued. And citing concerns about the nation’s debt, he said the kind of overall price tag Sanders was pushing was simply too high for him.
“If Republicans don’t want to make adjustments to a tax code which I think is weighted and unfair, then I’m willing to go reconciliation,” Manchin said. “But if they think in reconciliation I’m going to throw caution to the wind and go to $5 trillion or $6 trillion when we can only afford $1 trillion or $1.5 trillion or maybe $2 trillion and what we can pay for, then I can’t be there.”
That position foreshadows a bumpy road still ahead for Democrats. With their party’s hold on Washington potentially fleeting, progressives are adamant that this might represent their best and only chance to enact key policy planks like expanded health care access, aggressive climate policy and durable new social programs to support working Americans.
“Frankly, we really need to understand that this is our one big shot, not just in terms of family, child care, Medicare, but on climate change,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said on “Meet the Press.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, has said he hopes to pass the bipartisan agreement through the Senate before the chamber departs for its annual August recess, as well as a budget framework that would lay the groundwork for the reconciliation process.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week that the House would then use its leverage to ensure that one bill was not passed without the other. Both chambers would aim to send the bills to Biden by the end of September.
The White House has agreed to that plan, and on Sunday, Cedric L. Richmond, a senior adviser to Biden, said the administration was comfortable leaving the sequencing and legislative haggling to the two congressional leaders.
“The speaker is very capable. The speaker is great,” Richmond said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And we expect to get two bills to the president’s desk so that he can sign both of them.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.