Long-serving US senators have known President Joe Biden for decades. Lately, the most moderate ones are trying to reconcile two Joe Bidens.
There is Sen. Joe Biden, who, over the course of a 36-year Senate career, was an evangelist of bipartisanship and compromise — a theme he talked about consistently throughout his 2020 campaign for president. Then there is President Joe Biden, who welcomes comparisons to New Deal progressive Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with policy ambitions to match.
Biden’s presidency so far is decidedly more progressive than the one he campaigned on during the Democratic presidential primary, a shift prompted by Biden watching the nation weather multiple economic crises. The president’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill included $1,400 checks to most Americans, an expanded child tax credit, and $130 billion toward reopening schools, among many other things. White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently bragged it was “the most progressive bill in American history.” But the bill passed without a single Republican vote, and Republicans on the Hill say the White House didn’t really try to get them.
This came to the fore last week when reporters asked Biden about the Covid-19 bill negotiations with moderate Senate Republicans that faded out quickly.
“They started off at $600 billion and that was it,” Biden told reporters last week. “If they’d come forward with a plan that the bulk of it was $1 billion, three or four, two or three, that allowed me to have pieces of all that was in there, I would have been prepared to compromise, but they didn’t. They didn’t move an inch. Not an inch.”
As Biden’s administration begins conversations with lawmakers on the president’s potentially transformative investment of $2 trillion in infrastructure and jobs, the legacy of Sen. Biden looms large. Senators sometimes prefer to hear from Biden himself rather than his staff. On the other hand, an off-the-cuff comment from the president can also rile up Republicans, as it did last week.
“I continue to believe that President Biden wants a bipartisan approach,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told Vox in a statement. “He served for decades in the Senate, and he was involved in numerous successful bipartisan negotiations. I have no reason to believe that his entire philosophy has changed, but I do think that there is a lot of pressure on him from his staff and from outside far-left groups.
“I would urge him to remember his past successes in negotiating bipartisan bills both as a senator and then later as vice president,” she added.
Some Democrats find this criticism from Republicans a little rich after the Trump administration. A senior Democratic aide said the current White House outreach is collaborative, especially compared to President Donald Trump’s legislative outreach, which the aide described as “nationally televised hostage meetings where he’d talk about border stuff or guns.”
The aide, who is familiar with conversations between congressional leadership and the White House, described frequent contact from the president, White House chief of staff Ron Klain, and members of the president’s Office of Legislative Affairs, run by Louisa Terrell.
“It would be unfair for us to say we’re not being heard out because we are,” the aide said. “It doesn’t mean we’re winning every argument.”
Democrats are determined to go big on infrastructure. But razor-thin Democratic majorities in the House and Senate mean there could be limits to what they can get done using budget reconciliation. Democratic leaders want to pass a bill by July 4. The hitch in this plan is that moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia want Senate Republicans on board, which could mean compromising that bold vision quite a bit.
How big the next federal investment in America is may rest on whether President Joe Biden or Sen. Joe Biden comes to the negotiating table.
Amid a flurry of White House outreach, Republicans are skeptical
Republicans are in the minority in both chambers of Congress, which means Democrats need every vote they have to pass the next budget reconciliation bill.
But several moderate Senate Democrats, including Manchin and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Tom Carper (D-DE), want to try to work with the GOP on infrastructure first.
White House staff and key Cabinet members have been doing a lot of outreach to Democrats and Republicans alike on Capitol Hill; key Cabinet secretaries have made 27 calls to members, including seven Republicans. And the White House legislative affairs team has made around 139 calls to members, chiefs of staff, and staff directors, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki. Out of 99 calls to the House, 35 were to Republicans; out of 40 calls to the Senate, 15 were to Republicans.
Last week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, one of the main Cabinet secretaries leading discussions with members, said that the main disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on infrastructure are the scale of the plan and how to pay for it. Biden’s pay-for proposal is raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent, which many Republicans see as an undoing of their 2017 tax cut bill. Republicans are also poised to unveil their own infrastructure counteroffer, the price tag of which could be $600 billion to $800 billion and be paid for using a gas tax or other mileage fees.
“Most of the dialogue we’re having is around how we’re going to pay for it, and we’re really eager to hear the alternative suggestions for how to pay for it,” Buttigieg said.
Some Republicans are wondering how serious Democrats are about making a deal.
“The question before us is this: Is this outreach the beginning of a true negotiation, or is the administration so wedded to the details of its plan, including its exorbitant top line, that these are just courtesy briefings?” Collins, a leader of a group of 10 moderate Republican senators, with her own long working relationship with Biden, told Vox in a statement.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), echoed Collins in comments to Alaska Public Media reporter Liz Ruskin, saying she is concerned the White House and congressional Democrats are going well beyond the scope of fixing roads and bridges in their plan.
“If you’re advertising this as ‘this is an infrastructure package,’ let’s be honest about what we’re talking about,” Murkowski told Ruskin. “If this is going to be a significant stimulus bill, on top of an already significant stimulus bill that we saw with the American Rescue Plan, then let’s label it for what it is.”
White House overtures to moderate Republicans may have also been complicated by Biden’s own recent comments. When he defended his decision to go it alone on the Covid-19 relief package, it incensed the group of moderate Republicans, including Sens. Collins, Murkowski, and Mitt Romney (UT). A few hours later, the 10 senators released a statement saying it was the president, not them, who refused to budge.
“The Administration roundly dismissed our effort as wholly inadequate in order to justify its go-it-alone strategy,” the group said in a statement, pointing out that they viewed their $618 billion proposal as a starting point to negotiate with Biden, later raising it to $650 billion.
As Collins and other Republicans who have personal relationships with Biden are holding out some hope that the White House will come to the table with them, some Republican staffers on Capitol Hill are more skeptical.
“Briefing senators on a fully-baked package is not negotiating with them,” one Republican aide told Vox. “It also doesn’t make what you’re pretending to sell them ‘bipartisan.’”
Biden’s views were shaped as Obama’s vice president
Biden is well aware that the US Senate was designed to curb the ambitions of presidents; he wrote about the institution with reverence in his 2007 autobiography Promises to Keep.
“The Senate was designed to play this independent and moderating role, and it is a solemn duty and responsibility that transcends the partisan disputes of any day or any decade,” Biden wrote in his book. But several things happened between then and now to further shape Biden and his staff’s views of the same institution.
As vice president, Biden saw that former President Barack Obama’s repeated attempts to work with GOP leadership on the Hill were often roundly dismissed. Biden was himself dispatched several times to try to strike deals with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell — who was intent on making Obama a “one-term president.” Early on in his presidency, as Obama was en route to the Capitol to meet with Republicans to get them on board with a stimulus bill to save the economy from crisis, House Republican leadership sent out a message to their members telling them to vote against any proposal.
Then, during Obamacare negotiations, Senate Democrats and Obama administration officials were met with repeated no’s from even the most moderate Republicans. As Ezra Klein and Sarah Kliff detailed for Vox in 2017:
There wasn’t even a counteroffer to reject — the Senate’s moderate Republicans never laid out the price of their support. One reason there was no counteroffer? The GOP’s Senate leadership wanted to make sure there would be no agreement.
“On most issues, that wasn’t productive, because Sen. McConnell wasn’t interested in finding common ground,” Obama’s legislative affairs director Phil Schiliro told me in an interview last year.
Biden’s presidency has been met with even less good faith. His inauguration was preceded by the January 6 insurrection and the 147 Republican lawmakers who still refused to certify the election after bloodshed in the nation’s Capitol. Many Democrats, particularly in the House, started the new congressional session downright angry and suspicious of their Republican colleagues.
“The fact they voted the way they did after the horror fundamentally forces you to recalibrate the relationship,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told me outside the House chamber. “You’re no longer just my political adversary or colleague of the other side, you actually aligned yourself with the people who want to kill me. So I now see you differently, I kind of see you as a threat to my personal well-being and [that of] my family and my staff.”
Republicans have a limited amount of time to make their offer
The Biden White House is already signaling that they care more about what Republican voters think, compared to Republicans in Congress. Their Covid-19 relief package remains extremely popular with voters, no matter their political party. And while the White House is pointing to polls showing infrastructure is also popular, CNN’s Harry Enten pointed out that an average of polls showed around 54 percent voter approval for a big infrastructure package, a good 12 percentage points lower than the approval average for the already-passed Covid-19 bill.
“If you looked up ‘bipartisan’ in the dictionary, I think it would say support from Republicans and Democrats,” Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn told the Washington Post. “It doesn’t say the Republicans have to be in Congress.”
Republicans have a limited amount of time to try and make a deal before Democrats forge ahead with budget reconciliation. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), one of Biden’s close allies in the Senate, told Punchbowl News that Democrats don’t want bipartisan negotiations with Republicans to drag on for months.
“If we get to Memorial Day and there isn’t a clear ‘this group of Republicans is working on this menu with these pay-fors on this timeline,’ I think Democrats just roll it up into a big package and move it,” Coons said. “Is President Biden willing to wait until Labor Day for us to come together around some perfect bipartisan infrastructure package? No. Is he willing to wait until the Fourth of July? Maybe.”
The Biden administration very well may be more intent on making sure it has enough Democratic votes to pass a big bill through budget reconciliation, rather than getting the requisite 10 Republican votes for a watered-down version.
The key partners for Biden in this endeavor are House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Schumer recently told Vox’s Li Zhou he has Klain’s number memorized, and that the White House is “very open to discussing things with us early on, to be available and accessible.”
House Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) told Vox that frequent conversations with the White House have been “a really good part of this administration.”
“We’re constantly talking to people in all arenas of the White House, from the Economic Council to the Domestic Policy Council to the White House chief of staff to others involved with key priorities we’re interested in,” Jayapal said. “It’s been a great and productive relationship to share our ideas and make our priorities known as soon as possible.”
Progressives in Jayapal’s wing of the party are already calling for a bigger bill. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and a number of other progressive lawmakers are calling for $10 trillion in spending over the next decade, and saying Biden’s proposed number falls short of the New Deal-style vision they were hoping for.
Meanwhile, a group of Democrats in the House representing blue states like California, New York, and New Jersey want to insert a regressive tax deduction known as the state and local tax credit into Biden’s tax plan. Others don’t want to give up on bipartisanship just yet.
Sen. Joe Manchin isn’t alone in his desire to work with Republicans. Sen. Carper, a moderate from Biden’s home state of Delaware and chair of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, has a close working relationship with the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, and he wants to move forward with a bipartisan water infrastructure bill and five-year surface transportation reauthorization bill.
But moderate Democrats shouldn’t be holding their breath; McConnell vowed his 50-member caucus wouldn’t vote for Biden’s infrastructure plan without drastic changes. And even the most moderate Republicans are skeptical of an infrastructure bill that doubles as a bold climate bill and contains $400 billion for long-term care workers and home health aides, an exclusionary zoning ban, and strong protections for unions.
Biden might make a bet that as long as the bill is popular enough, voters won’t care if it stretches the traditional definition of “infrastructure.”