By Seung Min Kim and Sean Sullivan,
White House counselor Steve Ricchetti’s message to moderate senators late last week was an effort to be soothing: President Biden will clarify that he didn’t mean it when he said he wouldn’t sign a bipartisan infrastructure deal unless it was accompanied by a more sweeping liberal bill.
By Monday, it was liberal Democrats who were getting placating calls from senior White House officials, who sought to ease any concerns about Biden’s infrastructure ambitions and explain what the president meant in his remarks. Further discussions were planned for Tuesday with the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
As Biden heads to Wisconsin on Tuesday to pitch the bipartisan deal, these chaotic efforts at behind-the-scenes damage control show how tenuous the agreement still is. Biden appears to have righted himself with centrist senators for the moment, but in assuaging one critical group he may have alienated another — liberals in his own party.
Although liberals said Monday that they still had faith in Biden to deliver on the party’s sweeping campaign promises, they warned that unless both bills are brought up at the same time, the bipartisan bill would not get enough Democratic votes to make it to his desk.
On Monday, the White House was eager to move on from procedural tangles that had knotted — at least for a moment — the momentum that had been building behind the bipartisan infrastructure agreement, the product of weeks of painstaking negotiations that was finalized last week by five Democratic senators, five Senate Republicans and the administration.
White House aides recognize that the delicate compromise could still face any number of near-death moments, according to one White House official with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter. And the squeeze facing Biden seemed only to tighten Monday.
A group of Democratic House members joined protesters from the left-leaning Sunrise Movement outside the White House to demand that far-reaching climate policies be added to the package. “We want them in tandem, man,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.). “If it’s not where it needs to be, we’ll vote it down and see where it goes from there.”
Some of the protesters chanted “No climate, no deal,” while others waved signs labeling Biden a coward.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who some Democrats suspect is trying to kill the bipartisan deal without leaving fingerprints, demanded that Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) join Biden in declaring they will not insist on the liberal companion bill.
“Unless Leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi walk back their threats that they will refuse to send the president a bipartisan infrastructure bill unless they also separately pass trillions of dollars for unrelated tax hikes, wasteful spending, and Green New Deal socialism, then President Biden’s walk-back of his veto threat would be a hollow gesture,” McConnell said.
But White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday repeatedly declined to say whether Biden would sign the bipartisan deal if it made its way to his desk without a broader package of spending on climate and social programs. Biden’s initial insistence last week that the two measures had to reach his desk together is what set off the scramble for damage control.
“The president looks forward to signing each bill. He has long supported the two-track approach,” Psaki said. “And his view is that the American people are most interested in what we’re going to do to deliver for them, how we’re going to rebuild the roads and their railways and their bridges, how we’re going to make sure they can have access to broadband, that we’re eliminating lead from drinking water.”
Biden will try to put his presidential muscle behind the agreement on Tuesday, traveling to La Crosse, Wis., to extol the nearly $1 trillion deal that would inject hundreds of billions into revitalizing transit projects, spurring a shift to electric vehicles and improving broadband access. The administration has described it as the country’s biggest long-term infrastructure investment in nearly 100 years, as well as the largest investment in public transit in history.
Biden aides have made it clear they are counting on the package to give his presidency a shot of momentum and validate his insistence that bipartisanship is still possible. Republicans are eager to show they can help govern, although some would prefer to deny Biden a bipartisan achievement.
Continuing its aggressive promotion, the White House on Monday released a memo touting the economic activity the agreement would ostensibly generate — from repairing dilapidated bridges and roads to aiding farmers and ranchers in preparing for potential droughts.
Biden himself penned an op-ed in Yahoo News, saying that the bipartisan agreement is a “signal to ourselves, and to the world, that American democracy can work and deliver for the people.”
“There is plenty of work ahead to finish the job,” Biden wrote. “There will be disagreements to resolve and more compromise to be forged. But this is a deal the American people can be proud of.”
Democratic leaders have long said they would move the president’s infrastructure push on dual paths, pursuing bipartisan talks on one track that they hoped would ease the way for a party-line measure on the other. They were hoping to mollify liberals anxious that their priorities would be sacrificed in the name of bipartisanship.
Then Biden, in announcing the bipartisan deal on Thursday, went further than aides and allies expected. “If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it,” he said last week from the White House East Room.
Democratic aides initially played down the impact of Biden’s comments, arguing they were a natural extension of Pelosi’s position in her news conference earlier that day: that she would not allow the bipartisan deal to pass until a separate package encompassing party priorities cleared Congress, too.
Schumer had made that point the same day, saying that the twin legislative efforts were “tied together” and that he had spoken personally with the president on the two-pronged strategy.
“He agrees that we cannot do one without the other, and he has let the participants know that,” Schumer said of Biden.
But an explicit, emphatic threat from Biden to not sign the bipartisan deal unless he also got a sweeping liberal measure was different, and it infuriated Republicans who had spent weeks negotiating what they understood was a free-standing compromise.
On Friday morning, Ricchetti and Louisa Terrell, the White House director of legislative affairs, began calling Republicans and Democrats in the 10-member Senate group that had crafted the compromise, according to several people familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about them.
Biden worked the phones, calling senators who negotiated the package over the weekend as he spent time at Camp David, the presidential retreat in northern Maryland, a White House official said.
In his calls, Ricchetti — who built up considerable credibility with Republicans in the infrastructure negotiations — stressed that Biden was enthusiastic about the agreement and assured lawmakers that had misspoken and the White House would clarify his remarks.
“There were a lot of calls on Friday, I can assure you,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who has spoken repeatedly with Ricchetti and Terrell in the past several days, said Monday on MSNBC.
Yet the frustration among some Republicans continued to build Friday, as the White House did not walk back the remarks either in the daily briefing nor in Biden’s public appearances that afternoon, despite Ricchetti’s assurances. Then came the 628-word statement from Biden on Saturday afternoon.
“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, referring to his “human infrastructure” proposal. “That statement understandably upset some Republicans.”
He continued: “My comments also 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 clear that it wasn’t just Republican negotiators whom the White House had to assuage, and that centrist Democrats who had worked on the plan also needed reassurance.
“I appreciated the president’s clarification that he issued over the weekend,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), one of the Democratic negotiators, said in an MSNBC interview Monday. “I think those of us who worked on this package very much appreciated his taking the time to try and make clear that he supports both packages and he hopes both will go forward, but that they are not linked.”
Throughout the process, the White House has been as worried about defections from progressives as about Republicans walking away. In conversations Monday, senior administration officials sought to allay their concerns and make clear to them that the White House understood their priorities could be left behind.
The White House also has sought input from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). And the outreach to the left will continue Tuesday when members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus meet with White House officials on Biden’s infrastructure plans.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the caucus’s leader, said the pressure is on Democrats in Congress to pass both the bipartisan and Democratic measures. “It doesn’t really matter what he says he will or won’t sign — we have to send him those bills to sign,” Jayapal said.
While holding on to support from liberals such as Jayapal, Biden has to be careful not to lose backing for the package from a half-dozen Republicans who did not directly negotiate the agreement but backed its general parameters.
That means people such as Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “While Sen. Tillis is pleased with the bipartisan framework agreed to by the Senate and President Biden, he is profoundly disappointed to see Speaker Pelosi and other Democrats engage in political hostage-taking,” said Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin.
The bipartisan measure needs 60 votes to pass the Senate, which is divided 50-50 between the parties.
The bipartisan agreement, a rarity in today’s Washington, has been personally important to Biden, and it was clear on Monday that the White House was eager to move beyond the rocky rollout and start selling the package to the larger public.
“I know there’s a lot of interest in kind of rehashing the last several days — I get it,” Psaki said Monday. But “we’re not going to do that. We’re going to focus on our efforts moving forward.”
David Weigel contributed to this report.