By Annie Linskey,
WASHINGTON — President Biden on Saturday reversed a stand he had taken forcefully just two days earlier, saying he will sign a roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package even if he is unable to bring his party together for a separate bill that includes other Democratic spending priorities.
On Thursday, Biden declared that he would sign the two bills together only. “If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it,” Biden said of the bipartisan compromise. “It’s in tandem.” But on Saturday, he said, “I gave my word to support the infrastructure plan, and that’s what I intend to do. . . . I fully stand behind it without reservation or hesitation.”
Biden’s switch came after Republicans bitterly complained that he had made it appear that they’d effectively signed off on a strategy that allowed the president to have a bipartisan infrastructure measure along with a much bigger Democrats-only spending package that he refers to as the American Families Plan.
“At a press conference after announcing the bipartisan agreement, I indicated that I would refuse to sign the infrastructure bill if it was sent to me without my Families Plan and other priorities, including clean energy,” Biden said in a statement Saturday afternoon.
“To be clear: our bipartisan agreement does not preclude Republicans from attempting to defeat my Families Plan; likewise, they should have no objections to my devoted efforts to pass that Families Plan and other proposals in tandem.”
He added 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.”
It was unclear if Biden’s statement would revive momentum behind the fragile deal that he outlined triumphantly on Thursday, flanked by five Democrats and five Republicans who had hammered it out. Many liberal Democrats have said they would support the bipartisan deal only if the other, bigger spending package was passed at the same time. Some Democrats are especially concerned that the bipartisan package does not do more to take on climate change.
The episode could be an embarrassment for Biden, who has often bragged about his negotiating skills and his innate understanding of Congress after spending 36 years in the Senate. And it could complicate the president’s efforts to get any part of his infrastructure plan passed.
The coming days will make it clear how much damage has been done. Shortly after Biden’s news conference Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “Less than two hours after publicly commending our colleagues and endorsing the bipartisan agreement, the president took the extraordinary step of threatening to veto it. . . . Less than two hours. It almost makes your head spin. An expression of bipartisanship, and then an ultimatum on behalf of your left-wing base.”
But Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a backer of the compromise, issued a statement shortly after Biden’s reversal Saturday suggesting the deal might be salvageable.
“Washington has been talking about truly modernizing our infrastructure for decades,” Portman tweeted. “This week Republicans and Democrats agreed on an historic bipartisan framework and we should pass it because it is good for the economy and the country.”
Still, some Republicans are now wary that they could be trapped into negotiating a deal on a package that will only be overwritten by a much larger spending plan. And Democrats, who want a bigger deal, worry that it’ll never happen if they approve a smaller one.
The episode also shows how difficult it is to find agreement with Congress so evenly split. Democrats have a tiny majority in the House of Representatives, while the Senate is split 50-50.
Saturday’s statement culminates a head-spinning 48 hours for the infrastructure bill. On Thursday, it emerged as a rare bipartisan agreement cheered by members of both parties. In the ensuing hours, it seemed mired down on the question of whether Biden would insist on an accompanying Democrats-only bill.
On Friday, Biden aide Steve Ricchetti, a chief negotiator on the bill, told Republican senators that the administration would clarify its position, according to people familiar with the conversations. Now, the president’s latest statement could give the deal new life, and he will begin traveling the country on Tuesday to highlight the economic benefits this agreement would deliver, starting with a speech in Wisconsin, a White House official said.
Last spring, Biden unveiled two major initiatives totaling about $4 trillion in new spending over eight years. The first, called the American Jobs Plan, was billed as an infrastructure proposal, though it included spending on items like home health care aides — which is not typically part of these construction measures. The other measure, called the American Families Plan, included investments in education and extended the Child Tax Credit, among other priorities.
Taken together, they would represent a New Deal-style transformation of the American economy, making record investments in roads and bridges but also extending a program that sends most parents monthly government checks to help offset the cost of having a child.
On Thursday, Biden was emphatic that the two measures would pass at the same time, a demand of many on the left who threatened to withhold support from the compromise plan unless they were assured their top priorities would not fall by the wayside.
The drama began on Thursday when Biden unexpectedly emerged from the West Wing around 12:30 p.m., accompanied by the five Republican and five Democratic senators who’d crafted the agreement, to announce to waiting reporters, “We have a deal.”
In response to a question about the fate of the separate package of Democratic priorities, the president said: “There is going to be a two-track system.” Supporters would try to move the compromise through the Senate with the 60 votes required for most legislation, he suggested, while Democrats would try to push the more liberal package with only 51 votes using a parliamentary maneuver called reconciliation.
But about 90 minutes later, Biden appeared in the East Room, this time without the Senators, and offered a definitive version of the strategy. In response to a question from a reporter who asked what Biden would do if one measure passed and the other did not, Biden said, “If they don’t come, I’m not signing. Real simple.”
He added: “If only one comes to me . . . if this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it. It’s in tandem.”
In Saturday’s statement, Biden offered a new position. “The bottom line is this: I gave my word to support the infrastructure plan, and that’s what I intend to do,” Biden said. “I intend to pursue the passage of that plan, which Democrats and Republicans agreed to on Thursday, with vigor.”
The president also outlined some of the pressure that he has been feeling from the left flank of his own party in recent days. “Some other Democrats have said they might oppose the infrastructure plan because it omits items they think are important,” Biden said. “That is a mistake, in my view.”
He added, “Some Republicans now say that they might oppose the infrastructure plan because I am also trying to pass the American Families Plan: that is also a mistake, in my view.”
There were early signs that Biden’s earlier comments linking the two measures weren’t going over well.
During the White House briefing on Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was peppered with questions about Biden’s plans, and she did not restate his comment that he would sign the bipartisan measure only if the Democratic package also passed.
Psaki also wouldn’t say whether Biden had privately warned the group of 10 Senators that he was going to link the two measures in that way.
Jeff Stein contributed to this report.