“Welcome to infrastructure week!” read the notecard Biden carried Thursday to microphones set up outside the West Wing.
He nixed the joke. If Thursday marked anything, it was more like the start of a long infrastructure summer, on the back of a sort of infrastructure spring, the outcome of which remains uncertain even as Biden hails victory for his long-held faith in bipartisan compromise.
Already, Republicans are hardening in opposition to Biden’s scheme of passing the $1 trillion infrastructure deal — which hasn’t been written yet — alongside a much larger package containing the remainder of his agenda that will require only Democratic votes. And Biden set off a frenzy by confidently telling reporters he would not sign the bipartisan deal he had just negotiated unless he had the larger package on his desk, too. “If they don’t come, I’m not signing,” Biden said Thursday. “Real simple.”
The uproar gained enough steam that by Saturday afternoon, Biden was forced to release a statement clarifying his pledge not to sign the bipartisan bill on infrastructure unless it came paired with a reconciliation proposal for “human infrastructure,” writing that his comments “created the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to, which was certainly not my intent.”
“The bottom line is this: I gave my word to support the Infrastructure Plan, and that’s what I intend to do. I intend to pursue the passage of that plan, which Democrats and Republicans agreed to on Thursday, with vigor.”
The President’s statement Saturday was the latest in a series of cleanup attempts from the White House seeking to stem defections from the bipartisan agreement. The move came hours before many of the Republicans who helped broker the deal, and were subsequently frustrated with Biden’s Thursday comments, were set to appear on the Sunday morning talk shows where it’s expected they would publicly air their irritation.
In a Friday afternoon conference call, “frustrations boiled” among Republican senators, according to a person familiar with the conversation, who said lawmakers were “dumbfounded” by White House explanations for Biden’s approach.
The White House also looked to reassure its own party.
Concerned about spooking moderate Democrats he had just spent weeks cultivating, Biden’s aides hastily scheduled a midday call with Democratic Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to reassure her of where Biden stood. The White House even took the unusual step of issuing a lengthy readout of their conversation, a practice typically reserved for foreign counterparts.
A senior administration official acknowledged they were attempting to walk back Biden’s remarks, and directly tied his conversation with Sinema to that effort. While they believed his sentiment was accurate — they want both deals passed in tandem — his advisers acknowledged the tactic of demanding as much publicly was too forward and needed to be softened.
In their public comments, White House officials — including press secretary Jen Psaki — declined to directly reiterate Biden’s threat of leaving the deal unsigned if the larger package doesn’t materialize.
White House officials believe it has long been clear the two packages would move together and publicly scoffed at suggestions lawmakers were caught by surprise. But Biden’s ultimatum did appear to test the durability of the agreement, leading the same aides who negotiated the deal to get back on the phone with lawmakers Friday who were balking. Aides stressed Biden’s continued support for the deal and his plans to travel around the country selling its merits, according to a White House official.
Going forward, the White House plans to focus on selling the bipartisan bill instead of getting involved in the order of when Biden receives the legislation, letting Democratic leadership handle the timeline.
Some inside the White House believe the risky maneuvering was the only way Biden could secure enough Democratic support for the eventual $4 trillion reconciliation bill, a telling sign of the degree to which his party’s divide is ever-present.
If the agreement falls apart, it could largely poison future opportunities for working across the aisle, particularly as midterm election season nears.
If he pulls it off, the two-track strategy would prove a striking show of legislative mastery for a career lawmaker whose presidency hinges on bringing together the progressive and moderate wings of his party. Aides said as much as Biden was invested in the substance of the deal, he was just as focused on the message it sent about the state of American government — and the vindication it contained for his personal brand of politics.
Months of walking a tightrope ahead
It was a key ingredient for more than just Biden. Several senators in the bipartisan group that crafted the deal mentioned the need to show government could deliver as a driving force. In the Oval Office before Biden emerged with the group to announce the agreement, it was a central point of the conversation, one official said.
“People really felt committed to one another in this and I think everyone thought it was important for the country to send this signal that we could work together in this way,” said Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the President and one of Biden’s lead negotiators and closest advisors, in an interview.
After the deal was struck, Biden’s victory lap took on an air of righteousness, claiming he’d proved his naysayers wrong. Behind the scenes, Biden frequently dismissed progressives who said he was wasting his time pursuing talks with Republicans, according to people familiar with the discussions, with the President claiming they knew little about how deals were struck in Washington.
But at best, neither bill will be ready for final passage until the fall, leaving weeks for potential pitfalls to throw off the carefully crafted political balance that the future of Biden’s agenda is now contingent upon. Even if the deal ultimately falls apart, Biden’s close advisers are still confident he’ll get credit among voters for his public outreach to Republicans on the matter.
The tandem strategy flowed from both political necessity and the President’s own inclination. As a long-time legislator with close relationships in both parti
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