The other targets of Biden's bipartisan outreach: Manchin and Sinema

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As the Biden White House attempts to craft an infrastructure package with Republicans, they’re also tending to their Plan B: Ensuring Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema stay on board if the GOP jumps ship.

This week, President Joe Biden is hosting a number of meetings with lawmakers across the aisle. The ostensible purpose is to find common ground between his $2.3 trillion infrastructure and jobs proposal and the Republican Party’s $600 billion one. But they’re also designed to show the Senate Democrats’ two swing votes that Biden’s appetite for negotiation is sincere. The president may need both Manchin (D-W.V.) and Sinema (D-Ariz.) to believe in that sincerity if, as some in the White House suspect, bipartisan talks fail and Democrats have to go it alone.

Biden met with Manchin and Sinema at this White House on Monday and Tuesday. In their meetings, the president sent the message to both senators that he wants them to have a voice in how a massive infrastructure package is crafted, inviting them to identify hard-to-refuse pet projects in their states and signaling a real attempt at bipartisanship, all with the intent of getting them to feel invested in the package early on.

“You’re giving them complete buy-in,” one person with knowledge of the White House’s strategy said. “They’re saying ‘you have complete ownership of this process.’”

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. speaks during a luncheon at the Arizona Biltmore, Friday, May 17, 2019, in Phoenix.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. speaks during a luncheon at the Arizona Biltmore, Friday, May 17, 2019, in Phoenix.

If both Manchin and Sinema sign onto the bipartisan deal but Republicans ultimately back out, White House advisers think they will then be in a much better position to convince the two senators to join a Democrat-only package that moves through the Senate via budget reconciliation, according to two people briefed on the matter.

Much of the strategy is being driven by chief of staff Ron Klain, who has internalized many of the legislative lessons of the Obama years. That includes 2009, when the White House started health care reform negotiations with a more robustly progressive proposal only to chisel away at it in an attempt to win over moderate Democrats who remained on the fence. That resulted in a dizzying amount of 11th hour scrambling. In hopes of avoiding that fate, the Biden White House appears eager to get the moderate lawmaker buy-in up front.

Perhaps the White House’s strongest asset in making headway with Manchin is Reema Dodin, deputy director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs,, whom Manchin deeply respects and who was intimately aware of what Manchin needed to hear in his meeting with Biden. Dodin gained familiarity with the Senator’s infrastructure priorities when she worked as Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) floor director, a position she held for almost the entirety of Manchin’s tenure in the Senate until decamping for the Biden White House.

With Vice President Kamala Harris as a potential tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 Senate, Manchin is pivotal to moving Biden’s agenda. The moderate West Virginia Democrat has said he wouldn’t sign onto an infrastructure package unless he saw the White House make a sincere attempt at finding bipartisan compromise.

Manchin told reporters his hour-long conversation with Biden Monday was “encompassing.”

“We talked about everything, we really did. It was a great conversation,” Manchin said.

“He wants things to happen, I agree with him,” Manchin added. When asked if Biden brought up Manchin’s opposition to hiking the corporate tax rate to 28 percent, Manchin intimated that Biden knew better; and instead steered the conversation toward where they had common ground.

“He understands. He’s up on everything. He knows what’s going on, trust me. He’s well-versed in what’s going on,” Manchin said, adding that Biden understood the senator’s concerns about a dysfunctional, hyperpartisan Senate. “He knows my desire, my passion and desire to try to get it working again.”

Biden also held a separate meeting with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a longtime ally who chairs the Senate Environment and Works Committee. Carper told reporters part of his message to Biden was to follow through with his efforts to broaden an infrastructure package to include funding for things like combating climate change.

“We need to take a path, similar to what the committee sought to do 18 months ago, and not just focus on roads, highways, bridges,” Carper said he told Biden in the White House meeting.

As the president heads into negotiations with Republicans, beginning today with congressional leadership and then Thursday with a group led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), the White House stressed that the only red lines are inaction on the package and raising taxes on those with incomes below the $400,000 threshold — something Biden promised he wouldn’t do during the presidential campaign.

Biden’s inner circle recognizes that Republicans are unwilling to expand the discussion much beyond so-called “hard” infrastructure like roads, bridges and tunnels. They’ve largely sidestepped questions about how the two sides plan to bridge major divides, like how to pay for the bill. Republicans have pushed for a hike in user fees instead of Biden’s proposed corporate tax increases.

“There are a lot of ways to approach a meeting like this, and the way the president is thinking about it is that you could spend the entire meeting talking about areas of disagreement ... or you can spend it seeking opportunity for common ground and he’s going to choose the latter,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. “His hope is this can be a discussion about where we can find a common agreement, where there is an opportunity to find agreement moving forward.”

Democrats see two paths forward on Biden’s massive $4 trillion infrastructure proposal. The first is finding ten Republican votes to forge a bipartisan agreement on the president’s American Jobs Plan, which would only include funding for so-called “hard” infrastructure, making it possible to avoid a filibuster and pass it through regular order in the Senate.

Democrats would then move on their own to pass the remaining initiatives, on everything from climate change to child care to paid family leave, using the parliamentary procedure known as budget reconciliation, which only requires 50 votes. That too would require Manchin and Sinema’s support, and there is fear on the left that the Senators may balk at passing another pricey package after doing one on Covid relief and infrastructure.

The alternative, if the White House fails to get Republicans on board, is to go it alone with just Democratic votes and move all their proposals through reconciliation in one piece of legislation. The White House has repeatedly made clear its first choice is to work with Republicans.

“That’s in part that's because they know they're getting another bite. That makes them in the mood to make a deal,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist D.C. think tank Third Way. “Politically, I think it's very smart because how many voters are going to be able to parse what was in the bipartisan infrastructure bill and what was in the Democrat-only reconciliation? Not very many. Outside of the readership of POLITICO, it's pretty scant.”

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