In the East Room of the White House on Thursday, Joe Biden finally celebrated what he had been longing for since inauguration day: a bipartisan agreement on a large piece of legislation.
“There’s not a single thing beyond our capacity that we aren’t able to do when we do it together,” the US president said. “It’s hard but it’s necessary — and it can get done.”
Earlier in the day, Biden had sealed a pact with 10 centrist senators — five Democrats and five Republicans — for a $1tn infrastructure investment package after weeks of cross-party negotiations.
The agreement, if enacted, would deliver Biden a key pillar of his multitrillion dollar economic agenda at a time when its momentum in Congress appeared to be petering out. But for the White House the deal will also help validate the 78-year-old president’s claim that he can live up to the calls for “unity” in America that peppered his campaign in 2020 and his inaugural address in January.
“For him this is proof of concept,” said Evan Osnos, the author of a recent Biden biography. “He ran for office, not only on the prospect that his own biography makes it possible to strike a deal, but that there is an unrecognised, under appreciated, amorphous group of potential collaborators between the parties.”
It is unclear whether the infrastructure agreement can make it over the finish line and actually become law. The bill will have to overcome resistance from progressive Democrats who see it as falling way short of Biden’s original $2.3tn infrastructure plan. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut senator, dubbed it “paltry” and “pathetic” in an interview on CNN. To Republicans, even the trimmed-down deal may seem excessive and many will balk at handing Biden a legislative victory.
“I think we have a long way to go, and the celebratory tone of today is very premature,” said Brendan Buck, a former Republican congressional aide and a partner at Seven Letter, a consultancy in Washington.
Some Republicans were further perturbed when Biden said on Thursday that he would only sign the bipartisan infrastructure legislation if it advanced in tandem with the rest of his sweeping economic agenda, which he intends to enact with Democrat-only votes. This part of his package would make new investments in the social safety net and fighting climate, paid for with tax increases on the wealthy and corporations.
Such a process could last for months, requiring a very delicate compromise among Democrats to ensure its passage along party lines. They have slim majorities in both houses of Congress.
“Endorse the agreement in one breath, and threaten to veto it in the next — it almost makes your head spin”, said Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, who was visibly displeased with the deal.
Biden certainly overcame much scepticism, including from within his party, to reach the bipartisan agreement. Many Democrats believed the president was wasting his time with the cross-party talks and risked getting bogged down as Barack Obama did in negotiations with Republicans over healthcare reform in 2009.
“[Biden] had a strategy here, he stuck to the strategy,” said Bob Shrum, director of the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for the Political Future and a Democratic strategist. “All these people on Twitter were going crazy saying this isn’t working, you have to do it a different way. And he just didn’t listen to them.”
Biden and his team made significant concessions and used some creative accounting to reach the $1tn goal. The new spending on infrastructure — from roads to bridges, broadband ports and airports — would amount to $579bn over five years. Spread over eight years, and including a renewal of existing infrastructure spending, the price tag hits $1.2tn.
The funding for the plan was the biggest sticking point because Republicans refused to countenance any tax increases that rolled back Donald Trump’s 2017 cuts, and Biden did not want to raise levies on petrol or electric vehicles.
The revenue raisers ended up being an eclectic mix: a projected increase in tax enforcement by the Internal Revenue Service; unused money from previous rounds of stimulus; sales from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve; 5G spectrum auction proceeds; and tax income from additional economic growth. But White House officials were still delighted by the deal.
“This is the largest long-term investment in our infrastructure and competitiveness in nearly 100 years,” one senior White House official told the Financial Times. “That is exactly the commitment [Biden] made to the American people during the campaign and since he took office.”
One of the biggest motivations for Biden in reaching the deal with Republicans was a sense that America needed to prove that its democracy was still working, an urgency that appeared to have increased after his first foreign trip last week, including the G7 summit and meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“This agreement signals to the world that we can function, deliver and do significant things,” the president said.
But ultimately, the success of the deal will be judged by how it is received domestically, something that Democrats are hopeful about.
“He’s got a sense of the country and the mood of the country,” said Shrum at USC Dornsife. “Yes, he has his bipartisan moment in the sun, but I think that’s more important to people in Washington. What counts out in the country is that you are achieving results.”