Infrastructure breakthrough marks victory for political center

President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden For families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football MORE’s deal with a bipartisan group of 10 senators is throwing a lifeline to one of Washington’s most endangered species: the political center. 

The agreement announced outside the White House and captured in back-slapping photos that quickly ricocheted throughout Washington came after significant doubt had been cast on the group’s ability to lock down a deal.

Many had predicted the talks would collapse or unravel and had said Biden was wasting time.

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Instead, Biden’s appearance outside the White House with the bipartisan Senate group marked a big win for Senate moderates and Biden himself, who campaigned as a dealmaker but struggled to break through with Republicans.

Sen. Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaSenators scramble to save infrastructure deal GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden Six months in, two challenges could define Biden's presidency MORE (D-Ariz.), in a rare gaggle with reporters on Capitol Hill, took a veiled jab at the naysayers.

“Folks around D.C. and around the nation will lament and say that bipartisanship is a thing that’s gone past. And you all have heard for weeks now people saying that a bipartisan agreement couldn’t happen,” Sinema said.

She said the deal “is proof that bipartisanship is alive and well in the United States Senate and in our country.” 

Thursday’s breakthrough will only be the start of a weeks-long — if not months-long — slog to get an infrastructure package to Biden’s desk. 

The bipartisan agreement is already facing pushback from both sides of the aisle.

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Some Republicans warn that Biden’s threat to not sign the bill unless a larger package is passed through special budgetary rules sidestepping the filibuster is a deal breaker.

Progressives want an “ironclad” commitment that the bipartisan package won’t become law unless the sweeping Democratic-only bill has a clear path to Biden’s desk.

“The challenge now is to make sure the rest of our caucus on the Democratic side and the Republican caucus know what's in this bill and can join us on supporting it,” said Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenEquilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Clean power repurposes dirty power CIA watchdog to review handling of 'Havana syndrome' cases Frustration builds as infrastructure talks drag MORE (D-N.H.), who acknowledged the challenge ahead.

Still, Thursday was undeniably a bright spot for Biden and centrists hoping to break the partisan fever and craft bipartisan deals.

“It’s important to recognize that when we say a bipartisan bill ... that signal that it sends to the country again, that we actually can work, that we actually can perform, that we can do something not for Republicans or Democrats but for Americans,” Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiWhy Biden's Interior Department isn't shutting down oil and gas Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (R-Alaska). 

Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterSenators scramble to save infrastructure deal Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor GOP blocks infrastructure debate as negotiators near deal MORE (D-Mont.) quipped that the agreement helped show that “we're not just, you know, a hot mess here.” 

The breakthrough came after a cycle of closed-door meetings that rotated between Portman’s basement hideaway, meeting rooms in the Capitol and Sinema’s Hart office, where staffers were frequently spotted bringing in water and boxes of pizza.

Even though the meetings jumped into the spotlight in recent weeks, senators have quietly been at work for months, including when Biden was still negotiating with Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoOfficials warn of cybersecurity vulnerabilities in water systems Graham, Hawley call on Judiciary Committee to hold hearing on US-Mexico border GOP senators urge Biden to keep Trump-era border restrictions MORE (R-W.Va.). 

The talks appeared to yo-yo throughout the week, appearing on the verge of collapse at one point only for negotiators to suggest that they were on the cusp of an agreement.

“I think you have to push positive vibes if you're going to get a positive result,” Tester said, asked why he continued to predict quick agreements even as others were pessimistic.

It’s the second win in roughly six months for the Senate’s moderates gang. Many of the same members were behind a bipartisan $908 billion framework that helped break the months-long stalemate late last year on a final coronavirus package during the Trump administration. 

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for us to show the rest of the world that we can still get big things done in a bipartisan way and lead the rest of the world,” Manchin said at the White House. Other senators were visibly exuberant as they touted their framework agreement. 

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Democrats argued there was little downside for Biden endorsing the agreement, even as they still need to win over enough support, noting it goes back to his political DNA as a centrist in the Senate. 

“I think he wants to do as much as he can bipartisan. ... So long as the Dems don’t relinquish our right to use reconciliation, just like the GOP did, then I think it’s all for the good,” said Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats brace for slog on Biden's spending plan Senate GOP likely to nix plan Schumer feels pressure from all sides on spending strategy MORE (D-Va.). 

And Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsKavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law Key Biden ally OK with dropping transit from infrastructure package Democrats criticize FBI's handling of tip line in Kavanaugh investigation MORE (D-Del.), a Biden ally, called the White House-Senate group framework a “big accomplishment” and declared Thursday a “great day for the American people, a great day for our democracy and for bipartisanship.”

Biden, speaking with the Senate group outside the White House, appeared to briefly reminisce as he said that the agreement reminded him of his own time in the Senate. 

“This reminds me of the days that we used to get an awful lot done in the United States Congress. ... We get bipartisan deals. Bipartisan deals mean compromise,” Biden said, at one point gripping Portman on the shoulder. 

“A lot of us go back a long way,” he added. “They have my word, I'll stick with what they propose. And they’ve given me their word as well. Where I come from, that’s good enough for me.”