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Why Biden Still Wins Infrastructure Negotiations, Even If They Fail

5 minute read

President Joe Biden entered the White House determined to restore the bipartisan work ethic that had been a hallmark of his three-decade Senate career. But now, after weeks of furious negotiations with Republicans over a sprawling infrastructure plan, it looks increasingly likely that his track record of finding compromise may remain a relic of the past.

Democrats and Republicans have tried to meet in the middle on Biden’s popular plan to improve America’s roads and bridges, expand high-speed internet and create millions of jobs. The White House has shaved over $550 billion from the roughly $2.2 trillion proposal it unveiled in March, and Republicans have increased their offer to $928 billion. But on the critical issue of funding the plan, the sides remain far apart. Republicans want the majority of the money to come from untapped funds already approved in the American Rescue Plan, which Democrats oppose. Democrats want to pay for the package with tax hikes, which Republicans oppose.

Publicly, the White House and the lead Republican negotiator, West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, remain hopeful about the prospect of reaching a deal. Biden met with Capito in the Oval Office for about an hour on June 2, and the two are planning to speak again on June 4.

But even as Biden and Capito signaled cautious optimism, it was apparent that others in their parties did not share their enthusiasm. Privately, Congressional aides and strategists on both sides of the aisle are skeptical, saying the two sides are still too far apart in a deeply polarized capital. If no deal comes to fruition, Democrats still have the option of passing a package unilaterally, under a wonky budget procedure known as reconciliation that only requires 51 votes for passage. House Democrats are preparing to jumpstart the legislative process on infrastructure as early as June 9, a clear sign that option is still on the table.

“As the President continues to discuss infrastructure legislation with Senate Republicans, the committees will hold hearings and continue their work on the Build Back Better agenda – with or without the support of Republican Senators,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in a May 28th letter to his colleagues. “We must pass comprehensive jobs and infrastructure legislation this summer.

The political implications of that move could be dire. A decade ago, Democrats paid a price for passing the Affordable Care Act along party lines, facing crushing losses in the midterm elections. And while the White House has been reframing the definition of bipartisanship to say it reflects the will of the American people, rather than their representatives, a Morning Consult poll conducted last month found that only one in 10 voters agrees.

But both Biden’s allies and even some Republicans agree that if negotiations fail, the President still wins—and so does his party. Crucially, the long weeks of public back-and-forth will make it easier to get moderate Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, whose votes are needed to pass a bill by reconciliation, onboard. Both say they want a bipartisan agreement on infrastructure, and Manchin told NBC News on Thursday that he still thinks it can be done. But after watching the two parties try and fail to reach an agreement, even on benign topics like funding for highways, it will be easier to convince those senators that a party-line passage is better than nothing, a person close to the White House says.

The President’s supporters also argue that the public act of good faith negotiations will boost Biden’s image with the voters. Over half of respondents surveyed in the Morning Consult poll believed Biden was sincere in his efforts to reach across the aisle, more so than any other politician polled. If the party moves forward unilaterally, says John Anzalone, Biden’s campaign adviser and pollster, the public isn’t likely to fault the President. Biden had “real success [negotiating] as a legislator. He believes in it, and thinks it’s important for the country, but it takes two to tango,” he says.

Ultimately, says Anzalone, the popularity behind the proposals in the American Jobs Plan means Biden will almost inevitably emerge with the upper hand. A poll from Monmouth University released April 26 found that 68% of Americans support the plan, including 69% of Independents. Americans “want this stuff done,” Anzalone says. “They want real action on economic recovery and job creation.”

Republicans, of course, have seen this polling too. But the party, which is trying to reclaim an identity in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s chaotic tenure, has struggled to rally around infrastructure, though it’s something they frequently profess to support. “I think there are very few people [in the Republican party] waking up excited, being like, ‘Let’s get an infrastructure deal done today,’ or or rallying around infrastructure as a top issue,” says one Senior Republican Senate aide who has been briefed on the negotiations.

Democratic aides argue that, instead, the Republican party’s focus has become blocking Biden’s agenda—and that this negotiation process exposed that. They frequently point to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comments at an event in Kentucky last month, with infrastructure negotiations already underway, saying “100% of my focus is to standing up to this Administration.” (McConnell did say on June 3 he is still hopeful a deal can materialize).

The Republican aide agrees that if negotiations fail, it could work to Biden’s advantage, because he will use reconciliation to try and pass a popular bill, but will still be able to point to a clear record of trying to reach a bipartisan agreement. Says the aide: “If the goal for them was to set it up so they have the 50 votes to go at it alone, it’s a pretty effective strategy.”

—With reporting by Brian Bennett/Washington

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Write to Alana Abramson at Alana.Abramson@time.com