It was a cringeworthy moment for the White House and a juicy opportunity for Republicans seeking to derail President Joe Biden’s agenda: Just two days after triumphantly announcing a bipartisan deal on infrastructure funding, the president issued a somewhat sheepish statement walking back remarks suggesting he might veto that very package if he doesn’t get another big spending package he wants.
“The statement understandably upset” Republicans, Biden said in an understatement of a White House statement. The written explanation was unusual in that it was directly from the president, with Biden’s characteristically informal tone.
For Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOPers eager to cast Biden as doddering or just disingenuous, Biden’s 625-word fix-it statement was powerful ammunition, hand-delivered by the political enemy. Republicans have sought to weaken the popular president by suggesting the 76-year-old is either suffering from cognitive decline or is a tool of the ascendant, progressive wing of the party.
But that effort appears to have fizzled before it even gained traction. Several GOP senators went on Sunday news shows to express their relief over the president’s clarification.
Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican who is among the bipartisan team of senators negotiating with the White House on a nearly $1 trillion package, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that he was “very glad to see the president clarify his remarks.” Now, Portman said, “We can move forward with a bipartisan deal that is broadly popular.”
Fellow GOP negotiator Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that “the waters have been calmed by what (Biden) said on Saturday.”
And as an added bonus for Biden as he faces a determined foe in McConnell, Romney added, “I do trust the president.”
Republicans continued to push back Monday, warning both voters and fellow Republicans that Biden has not committed to signing the infrastructure bill in the absence of a separate package, funding other domestic priorities, passed by Congress.
Biden initially sought a $2.2 trillion infrastructure package that defined “infrastructure” as not just roads and bridges but broadband, lead-free water pipes and support for caregivers. That idea was predictably rejected by Republicans – and met with skepticism by a couple of Democrats – leading to a series of bipartisan talks between the White House and rank-and-file lawmakers on the Hill.
On Thursday, the team announced a deal, with Biden – looking like he was missing his days as a mere senator, standing alongside colleagues and discussing the details of legislation – unusually coming out to the White House driveway to talk to reporters about the package. The entire team looked thrilled.
That changed hours later, when Biden, speaking from inside the White House, said he would not sign an infrastructure package unless he was also delivered a separate bill with many of his “American Families Plan” priorities, which include a wide array of domestic programs such as child care assistance, two free years of pre-K and two free years of community college, and a paid family and medical leave program.
That package is not likely to get much – if any – GOP support because of the high cost. But Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, could get it passed through something called “budget reconciliation,” a piece of legislation that cannot be filibustered.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday would not say Biden would sign the infrastructure bill without the bigger spending package. Asked repeatedly if Biden would sign one without the other, Psaki would only repeat that the president fully expected to sign both.
“I know there’s a lot of interest in kind of rehashing the last several days. I get it,” Psaki told reporters at the White House briefing Monday. “We’re not going to do that. We’re going to focus on our efforts moving forward.”
Biden’s weekend walk-back appeased GOP negotiators, but McConnell and other conservatives in the Senate are not satisfied. McConnell on Monday demanded that Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California – both of whom have linked the two bills – separate them.
“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 in a statement released Monday.
“Republicans have been negotiating in bipartisan good faith to meet the real infrastructure needs of our nation. The President cannot let congressional Democrats hold a bipartisan bill hostage over a separate and partisan process.”
Sen. Mike Braun, Indiana Republican, agreed, saying the bigger domestic spending plan would “transform Americans’ relationship with our government through a cradle to grave welfare state.” That remark is typical of Republicans’ efforts to cast Biden as hostage to the liberal wing of his party.
Biden, in fact, could lose needed progressive support if he does not push hard enough for a separate, domestic spending package. But McConnell faces risks as well.
If the Republican leader urges his caucus to stop the infrastructure package – which polls show has broad public support – and then loses, his power as party leader is diminished. That could open the door to other bipartisan deals Biden pledged to pursue, such as on policing reform.
“If we can pull this off, I think Mitch will favor it,” Sen. Bill Cassidy, Louisiana Republican, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “Now, he didn’t like the president throwing the wrench in there. … I think Mitch McConnell wants infrastructure as much as anyone else.”
He may not have much of a choice.