Against mounting odds, Biden seeks GOP support for infrastructure plan

President Biden speaks with reporters in the Oval Office
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President Biden on Monday intensified his effort to win broad congressional support for his massive infrastructure plan, huddling with eight lawmakers from both chambers in search of that rarest of things in today’s hyperpolarized Washington: bipartisanship. 

The gathering marked the first time the president has met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers on infrastructure since he introduced his American Jobs Plan on March 31 in Pittsburgh. He previously hosted a small cadre of Republican and Democratic senators in the Oval Office in February. 

But the two parties remained far apart after the nearly two-hour meeting. 

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, called it a “good discussion,” one in which Biden did most of the talking. But Wicker said pieces of Biden’s proposal would be “non-starters” for Republicans, particularly his idea to pay for the package through big corporate tax increases.  

Wicker said it “would be an almost impossible sell for the president to come to a bipartisan agreement that included the undoing” of the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts law. 

“I did tell him that,” Wicker told reporters after the meeting. “Whether we’ll be able to come to a bipartisan agreement that gets as expansive and as massive as he would like to, I don’t know.” 

“I certainly appreciated the words in the room, but obviously the follow-up actions are … most important,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told The Hill after the meeting.

The comments highlight the barriers facing the new administration as Biden seeks to honor a central campaign vow — working across the aisle in search of bipartisan solutions to the nation’s gravest problems — without alienating the liberal base that put him in office. 

The infrastructure package, among Biden’s top year-one priorities, is an enormous $2.25 trillion wish list that combines hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending for traditional public works projects like roads, bridges and public transit, with funding to fight climate change and additional provisions to prop up America’s families, including new child care and health care benefits.

Democrats are leaning toward a plan to separate the package into two smaller proposals: one featuring the more conventional infrastructure projects, which party leaders believe have a better chance of winning Republican support; and the other focused on the family care provisions, which face stronger headwinds from the right.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she wants to pass both before Congress’s August recess, but there are plenty of hurdles standing in the way. 

Internally, Democrats are at odds over the size of the package, with liberals urging Biden to go bigger while moderates are more wary of deficit spending — and the political blowback that might accompany it. 

Across the aisle, the president is also facing heavy resistance from conservatives who say the package is too large, leans heavily on tax increases and covers too many issues outside the realm of traditional infrastructure.

“You can’t just make up words and add ‘infrastructure’ at the end,” Graves said in the phone interview, panning what Democrats are calling “social infrastructure.”

And externally, Biden’s infrastructure pitch, which he hoped to trumpet just as Congress was returning to Washington after the long break, has been distracted — at least temporarily — by yet another police killing of a Black man in Minnesota, which quickly became the focus of reporter questions preceding Monday’s infrastructure meeting at the White House. 

Still, Biden is pushing ahead, arguing the need to address the nation’s crumbling infrastructure after decades of neglect — and to do it in a way that adopts climate-friendly technologies.  

“We need to build the infrastructure of today, not repair the one of yesterday,” Biden said in a meeting with CEOs to discuss semiconductors and supply chain resilience.

The bipartisan outreach comes as no surprise. Biden had campaigned on vows to promote national unity after four turbulent years under the Trump administration, which culminated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob attempting to overturn the results of the presidential election. In the wake of the deadly rampage, Biden is engaged in the tough task of making good on that promise, attempting to build bridges legislatively in the face of lingering political resentments. 

It hasn’t worked so far. 

In his earliest weeks in office, the president sought GOP support for his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, only to see every Republican in the House and Senate oppose it. And lawmakers in both parties are already predicting a similar partisan divide will accompany Biden’s infrastructure plan, given the early Republican opposition to the size, scope and offset strategy contained in the package.  

“I welcome Republicans coming along, but … I frankly don’t see it,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters during the long spring recess. “I’m not particularly hopeful that we’re going to see a giant awakening from Republicans who decide they want to pass an infrastructure package that actually addresses climate.” 

Centrist Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), an appropriator and member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said infrastructure is a popular issue in each of the 435 House districts. But he cautioned that Republicans are wary of excessive government spending, especially after Biden last month signed his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package into law.    

“There is so much money out there right now that hasn’t found its way into the system, [Biden] probably won’t get much help” on infrastructure, Joyce told The Hill. 

Still, Biden and top administration officials say they are hopeful a deal with Republicans remains in the cards.

“I’m prepared to negotiate as to the extent of my infrastructure [bill] as well as how we pay for it,” Biden said at the top of the Oval Office meeting, with Vice President Harris at his side. “I think everyone acknowledges we need a significant increase in infrastructure, it’s gonna get down to what we call infrastructure.” 

“I’m confident everything’s gonna work out perfectly,” he joked. 

The lawmakers invited to the White House on Monday did not include the usual centrist deal-makers like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) or Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska.). 

Instead the group was comprised of members who serve on committees that will play key roles in writing pieces of the sweeping Biden package: Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Wicker, the top Democrat and Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee; Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), a member of that panel; and Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

The House members were Graves, the top Republican on the Climate Crisis Committee; Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.), a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), the top appropriator who oversees transportation spending; and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the longest-serving member of Congress who was the former chairman of both the Transportation and Infrastructure and Natural Resources committees.  

“We’ve got the dean here. Don Young is here. We’ve got the dean,” Biden said, gesturing to Young, whom he served with in Congress for more than three decades. “So everything’s gonna be alright.” 

Tags Alex Padilla american jobs plan Bipartisanship David Joyce David Price Deb Fischer Don Young Garret Graves Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Lisa Murkowski Maria Cantwell Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Roger Wicker Susan Collins
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