Joe Biden Is Chasing a Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal That May Never Materialize

7 minute read

This article is part of the The DC Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox every weekday.

It wasn’t that long ago that a go-to joke among insiders was that it once again was Infrastructure Week in President Donald’s Trump’s Washington. It was a lingering promise of normalcy that never quite came. The shorthand served as a coded reminder that no matter how well-planned his aides’ effort to curb his sprawling spitefulness and errant tweets, they were destined to go off the rails. Infrastructure Week came to represent the increasingly distant dream of a bipartisan delivery on a set of concrete projects that are broadly popular services of government, such as roads and bridges.

Well, Trump is gone. But Infrastructure Week is still with us, albeit in a much different form. President Joe Biden continues to chase the same list of goals that are popular across the political spectrum. (He also has a secondary wish-list of an agenda that includes more help for families, more free education for students and boosted cash for teachers. That’s seen as an add-on to this and not really central to this effort.)

Call around Washington these days and ask about the prospect of this infrastructure push, and the optimism is about the same level as during the Trump years. It has nothing to do with middle-of-the-night tweets of grievance as was the case for the last four years and everything to do with this universally agreed-upon fact: a handful of Senators hold potentially trillions of dollars in spending hostage and every one of them has a parochial reason for rejecting the proposal, at least for now.

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her team have no grand designs on bipartisan support for anything that gives Biden a win, and they don’t need it. Pelosi has a narrow, eight-vote majority at the moment. It can be dicey at times, but on big-agenda items, no one holds a caucus together with a blend of sticks and carrots as Pelosi. Imagination is the only limit on what Democrats could do with infrastructure in that Lower Chamber.

Where things get tricky, though, is the Senate. In that Upper Chamber, barring a dramatic procedural loophole being deployed, things need bipartisan support. Democrats have the majority, but only with the help of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 chamber. That’s typically insufficient on all but a few select votes, given the current rule that most things require 60 votes to end a filibuster and proceed to actually act. In practicality, that means 10 Republicans need to join Democrats, assuming the Democrats can hold rogue lawmakers in line.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been as plain as ever when he declared Biden’s first proposal, clocking in at $2.3 billion, a non-starter for him and his team. But he is also not blocking the likes of Sen. Susan Collins of Maine from talking about a scaled-back version that could win the backing of enough moderates in her caucus to get the plan over the line. Nor is McConnell putting the kibosh on the talks with the White House led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. The latest round of those efforts came again today, with Biden sitting down in the Oval Office with the West Virginia Republican to follow-up on staff meetings that both sides cast as productive. In a signal that it’s more than a photo-op, cameras weren’t allowed in.

Inside the Biden White House, the official line is that a deal is possible and no one is better at crafting compromise in the Senate than Biden himself. It’s a skill he’s been honing since 1973, when White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain was 12. Publicly, White House advisers are touting that they have scaled back their offer by $600 billion in a sign of good-faith talks while Republicans rightly note that much of that has been off-loaded into other legislation already, moving through Congress under different banners. Meanwhile, Republicans bent on finding a deal have raised their package from a topline of $568 billion to $928 billion. (In one of those only-in-Washington moments, those figures actually include leftover COVID-19 relief funds and represents just $257 billion in new spending. The PBS NewsHour’s “Here’s The Deal” newsletter rightly described this as a $1.4 trillion gap.)

The Senate has changed since Biden last served there in 2009. The Tea Party revolution brought in firebrands like Rand Paul, Ron Johnson and Ted Cruz, for whom compromise is a grievous sin. By every measure, partisanship is at an historic high with both parties pulling further afield. While what Biden is pitching is popular even among Republicans, the substance isn’t what is problematic right now. It’s that delivering on this gives Biden a big-headline win he can use if he seeks re-election in 2024 and puts a target on the back of every Republican who backs it in their home-state primaries for years to come. The far-right has already shown signs of strength, channeling Trump-style politics of zero-sum consideration. Any win for Biden is anathema to their pure version of obstruction.

Several Democrats outside the White House have been agitating for Biden to give up the bipartisan chase. No Senate Republicans backed his pandemic-relief plan and only six voted in support for a commission to study the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Biden’s chase of a deal already is showing a lot of similarities with the Obama-era pursuit for months of Republican votes on the Affordable Care Act.

Biden’s advisers have a clear-eyed answer to this criticism at the ready. Absent robust and sincere efforts to get Republicans on board, it’s impossible to sell this package to the likes of Senators Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly. As this newsletter has noted repeatedly, all face tough re-election bids and none is a true-blue Democrat. If it looks like a partisan power grab, count them out. Eventually, Democrats may have to go it alone, as they did on the latest stimulus package. But they will need every Democrat to stay united, and that’s easier if they have a long record of all the times they tried to meet halfway.

A secondary reason to chase a deal—at least for a while—is that it’s on-brand Biden. He won the election on the most progressive platform in history but campaigned as a center-of-the-road, reasonable man. Later, Biden can legitimately say that he tried and tried and tried for a deal, but those Republicans in Washington couldn’t get to yes no matter what. In some ways, the longer this drags on and the more attention Biden’s talks get, the more it may help him in 2024. It’s tough to attack someone for chasing something ambitious and working with opponents to get it done. This is why the Infrastructure Week joke sticks around, but has taken on new meaning with a new team in the West Wing.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the daily D.C. Brief newsletter.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at