Joe Biden has vowed to make every effort to work with Republicans until progress is impossible. Right now, he and conservative lawmakers see an infrastructure bill as still within the realm of possibility.
If so, it would mark a significant step forwards for Biden in passing a large part of his legislative agenda aimed at sparking the recovery of the pandemic-hit US economy. Biden’s team has consciously drawn comparisons to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s effort to lift America out of the Great Depression through government programs and big public works projects.
Over the past week, Biden has engaged in one-on-one sit-downs and group discussions with the highest-ranking Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Congress, and more conservative members of the Democratic party.
Those discussions have been the the most visible movement among both Biden officials and Republicans on coming to an infrastructure deal, as the president looks to pass his roughly $2tn American Jobs Plan.
Biden has promised to work with Republicans until gridlock occurs. For years, Republicans and Democrats have groused that if only an administration would undertake a serious bipartisan stab at updating the nation’s roads, bridges, transportation and electrical grid. Biden is trying to do just that.
On Thursday Biden met with five Republican senators helping to lead the negotiations alongside the transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, and commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo.
“We had a very productive – more than courteous – give-and-take. We did talk specifics, and the president has asked us to come back and rework an offer so that he can then react to that and then reoffer to us,” Senator Shelley Moore Capito, the point-person for Republicans negotiating an infrastructure deal with the White House, said after the meeting on Thursday.
She added: “So we’re very encouraged. We feel very encouraged by the bipartisan shift that we think this infrastructure package can carry forward and again I’m grateful and his staff for the give-and-take that we shared in the Oval Office.”
The discussions are still in nascent stages and lawmakers have kept mum on the sticking points.
Two broad points of division have been the total price tag. The Biden administration has been pushing for an infrastructure package at about $2tn while Republicans have vacillated on their ideal number. Last month that number was at about $586bn, but more recently Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said a bill shouldn’t cost more than $800bn. Capito’s initial infrastructure blueprint was sparse on how it would be financed.
Details on the sticking points between Republicans and Democrats have been scant but Republicans have been hoping to fund a final infrastructure compromise through user fees, such as raising taxes on gas and electric vehicles. Some of the more conservative Democrats in the chamber have expressed openness to this, while other members of the caucus have warned that user fees could effectively be taxing poorer Americans.
Biden, who likes to portray himself as a consummate broker, has also expressed openness to a compromise.
“We didn’t compromise on anything. I laid out what I thought we should be doing, and how it should be paid for, and my colleagues in the Senate came back to me and said they’ll come back with a counteroffer of what they are prepared to do, and how to fund it. And then we’ll talk again next week,” Biden said after the Thursday meeting.
Building Back Together, the pro-Biden administration outside group, has been airing ads across the country touting infrastructure. Biden officials have also been speaking to lawmakers to suss out their positions on a deal.
Biden has also held one-on-one meetings with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the two most conservative Democrats in the Senate caucus. He has also met with Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, who chairs the environment and public works committee. In the meetings with Carper and Sinema the discussions veered toward using user fees as funding methods.
“We didn’t talk specifics. He understands, and he’s up on everything – he knows what’s going on. He’s well versed in what’s going on,” Manchin said. “He understands and he just thinks … he wants to make sure that we all want something good to happen for our country.”
Asked when he planned to meet with Biden again Manchin said: “Whenever he calls me.”
Biden and other Democrats would prefer to pay for the infrastructure bill by raising the corporate tax to 28% from 21% – a move Republicans are unlikely to embrace easily.
It’s still unclear exactly what a compromise would look like, or if it can happen by Memorial Day, a deadline the president would prefer.
“Initially our goal was sometime this summer, maybe by the fourth of July recess to try to report a bill out of committee,” Senator Carper said in an interview. “We’ve moved it up like a month and a half. If we can get out of committee on a bipartisan vote by Memorial Day that would be great.”