Biden turns focus to next priority with infrastructure talks

President Biden is starting to look beyond coronavirus relief to his next legislative fight, preparing to lay out a recovery package that makes significant investments in rebuilding U.S. infrastructure. 

Biden met with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for over an hour on Thursday afternoon, his second bipartisan meeting with the group over the past month. 

The president is expected to lay out his “Build Back Better” recovery plan sometime after the Senate passes its $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, which the chamber took up on Thursday and could pass by the weekend. While the White House has been mum on details of the recovery plan, it’s likely to at least partly mirror the $2 trillion infrastructure and climate proposal he laid out on the campaign trail and include a hefty investment in infrastructure to spur job creation.

Lawmakers from both parties described Thursday’s meeting as productive, though it remains to be seen whether Biden can use his legislative chops to usher in bipartisan cooperation on major legislation. Former President Trump ran on a plan to invest substantially in upgrading America’s infrastructure but never followed through with the push while in office. “Infrastructure week” became a punch line.

The meeting participants “discussed their shared commitment to working across the aisle to build modern and sustainable infrastructure in rural, suburban, and urban areas across the country that create good-paying, union jobs and support the economic recovery,” according to the White House readout of the meeting.

“He wants to move as quickly as possible. He wants it to be very big and he feels that this is the key to the recovery package,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) told reporters upon leaving the meeting.

Ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) described the meeting as an “icebreaker” and said he expected discussions to continue, though he said no timeline of Biden’s proposal has been discussed. He said Biden made clear that he preferred to negotiate a bipartisan bill on infrastructure. 

“I thought it was good, it seemed to be productive. The president was very engaged and very open,” Graves said in a phone interview with The Hill. “Nobody got into any fights.”

The high cost of an infrastructure package, which could increase the corporate tax rate, and the climate change component are both divisive issues for Republicans.

Graves said Thursday that Republicans did not want the bill to be “a climate bill with a few transportation projects.” He said Biden made clear climate is important to him but seemed receptive to their concerns.

DeFazio said following the meeting that he brought up the question of how to pay for an infrastructure bill, but declined to divulge specifics about the exchange. 

The Build Back Better plan that Biden laid out on the campaign trail focused on manufacturing and innovation, as well as building a modern infrastructure that builds a clean energy economy. It would invest in roads, bridges, energy grids, schools and broadband, and includes the goal of creating millions of union jobs.

On climate, it included building 1.5 million new sustainable homes, as well as zero-emissions public transportation in major U.S. cities and a power sector that is carbon pollution free by 2035.

Major business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are pressuring the administration to move ahead with an infrastructure package and embracing the climate change component. That support could help sway Republicans.

Biden will need to decide whether he can work with Republicans on a recovery bill or whether he will need Democrats to use reconciliation to pass the package in the Senate. The latter would require him to balance competing demands from Democrats in order to unite the party. 

An infrastructure proposal could be the second bill, following the COVID-19 relief package, that Democrats try to pass through the budget reconciliation process that lets them sidestep a legislative filibuster, though Biden has made clear that he would prefer to have Republican support. 

“He’s got to quickly determine whether he’s going to be able to work with Republicans that would require 60 votes to get a package out of the Senate or whether he’s going to use reconciliation again — as is his right — to pass an infrastructure bill,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former communications director for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “That’s the bottom line.” 

Manley, who has been encouraged by Biden’s willingness to use reconciliation to pass the coronavirus relief proposal amid complaints from Republicans, said it would be appropriate for Biden to use reconciliation to pass the next bill if there cannot be agreement with Senate Republicans. 

Democrats and other stakeholders have offered up various ideas to include in the recovery package. Earlier this week, a group of Democratic senators voiced support for recurring direct payments for some Americans to be included in the forthcoming package.  

“I will say there are a lot of ideas that will be put forward. The president has already started engaging and talking with members and outside groups and stakeholders about what they’d like to see moving forward,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a briefing this week when asked about the idea. “I’m not going to get ahead of the agenda at this point in time.” 

Biden is balancing various policy initiatives but his focus is ultimately expected to next land on the recovery proposal. Lawmakers also unveiled an immigration proposal with his blessing last month and officials are still working to usher Biden’s Cabinet nominees through confirmation. 

But Biden’s agenda has already encountered hurdles in the Senate, where Democrats hold an extremely thin majority. Biden on Thursday praised the House passage of a sweeping voting rights bill and pledged to work with Congress to “refine” it, a tacit acknowledgement of the hurdles it faces in the upper chamber where it would need 60 votes to pass. 

“We have a whole list of pressing needs that need to be addressed,” said Manley. “It’s only going to get harder from here on out. A lot of these bills are going to end up dead on arrival in the Senate, and the question is what happens then.”  

Tags Biden agenda Coronavirus Donald Trump Harry Reid Infrastructure Jen Psaki Joe Biden Pete Buttigieg Peter DeFazio relief bill Sam Graves

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