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President Joe Biden faces a critical test in the coming days: whether his strategy for passing two infrastructure bills will produce something he can sign into law before the midterm elections consume Washington’s attention for a year.
Biden headed to Cincinnati for a town hall to promote his plans as the Senate failed to advance his bipartisan infrastructure framework on Wednesday.
"You had up to 20 Republicans sign the letter" on the deal, he said. "I come from a tradition in the Senate that you shake your hand, you make a deal."
The procedural vote is not fatal to the $1.2 trillion package — Senate Republicans who support the basic outline but are still haggling over some of the details aim for a redo next week — but it illustrates the difficult maneuver Biden and congressional Democrats are attempting.
The president wants to pass one smaller bill that mainly funds traditional infrastructure projects, such as roads and bridges, that both sides can agree to. He would simultaneously like to sign a second, bigger bill that relies on a more expansive definition of infrastructure to include climate change and social welfare spending, which he hopes to get through Congress with just Democratic votes using the reconciliation process in the Senate.
Liberals fear the passage of the bipartisan bill will doom or dilute the reconciliation bill. Even some Republicans who support the bipartisan bill fret its prospects are connected to the reconciliation bill they oppose, which essentially restores much of the spending excluded from their preferred framework during their negotiations with Democrats and the White House.
Activists who support Biden were never enthusiastic about boosting two separate bills and worried Republicans could abandon them on both. Many conservatives oppose both bills, citing concerns about inflation, the national debt, and unspent COVID-19 relief funds.
Biden discovered the difficulty of this two-step when, hours after announcing a bipartisan deal at the White House, he appeared to threaten to veto it if the reconciliation bill did not also pass. After Republicans said they felt double-crossed, he later clarified he was not actually threatening a veto.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would not take up a bipartisan bill if the reconciliation plan did not pass. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a socialist who chairs the Senate Budget Committee and lost to Biden in the Democratic primaries, said the same.
“After Republicans have worked in good faith for months in pursuit of a ‘bipartisan’ budget deal, Democrats have simply advanced every one of their priorities in an extreme, Bernie Sanders-backed partisan reconciliation package,” said Heritage Action executive director Jessica Anderson in a statement earlier this month. “That’s not negotiation — it’s bulldozing.”
The apparent contradiction dates back to Biden’s campaign for the presidency. He defeated Sanders for the nomination, arguing only a mainstream Democrat could win. He then had to motivate Sanders’s supporters to turn out for him in the general election, as they had not done so in sufficient numbers for Hillary Clinton in 2016, while also reassuring suburban voters he was a bipartisan deal-maker.
This led to telling one group of voters he was no wild-eyed liberal — Biden mocked predictions his election would lead to the end of capitalism in remarks at the White House just this week — while promising another set of voters he was.
Biden has attempted to replicate this campaign strategy on infrastructure, but it has proved more challenging in plain sight of lawmakers.
“How far Left is the Democrats’ reckless $3.5 trillion spending spree?” Republican National Committee rapid response director Tommy Pigott asked in a statement hitting the reconciliation bill. “Socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are openly bragging it’s an 'enormous progressive victory.'”
That price tag is down from the $6 trillion to $10 trillion figure some liberals wanted. However, some of the reduction is due to the sunset provisions required by reconciliation and includes spending that will likely be continued afterward.
Still, it is up from Biden’s opening bid of more than $2.2 trillion.
The White House isn’t ready to concede defeat.
“This is a motion to proceed,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters ahead of Wednesday’s setback. “It is not a final vote on the legislation.”
The White House has tried to put the legislative process in the Democratic congressional leaders’ hands.
“The only disagreement right now is around some pay-fors, which we're working through and we're having discussions about,” Psaki added. “But, again, there's ample precedent, and we support [Senate Majority] Leader Chuck Schumer’s strategy of moving this forward.”
Biden nevertheless predicted the bipartisan framework would move forward soon.
"Monday," he predicted Wednesday night. "I'm not being facetious."
He continued throughout the CNN event to vacillate between calls for bipartisanship, during which he praised Ohio Republicans and sharp criticism of the GOP.
"You keep your word. And I've found Rob Portman does that," Biden said, referring to the Buckeye State's GOP senator. "I've found ... your governor [Mike DeWine] is a good man. You shake his hand, it’s done.”
The infrastructure outcome is important to Biden, who is looking for legislative wins ahead of next year’s elections, in which Democrats will be defending razor-thin margins. As in last year’s campaign, he will want to show he can deliver on both a liberal policy agenda and bipartisan deal-making.
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Original Author: W. James Antle III