Joe Biden will fly to La Crosse, Wisconsin, on Tuesday to sell his bipartisan $1tn infrastructure plan to voters in the Midwestern swing state.
The sweeping legislative package that the president will be pitching includes an unprecedented amount of federal investment in America’s rail network and bridges, as well as the rollout of a nationwide network of electrical vehicle chargers and an expansion of high-speed broadband access.
But there is a catch. Back in Washington, the bipartisan deal’s prospects are in doubt, after Biden last week overshadowed its announcement by effectively threatening to veto the legislation unless it is tied to a more ambitious anti-poverty spending package.
This second package, known as the American Families Act, is not expected to garner any Republican support and Democratic congressional leaders hope to ram it through a divided Senate on a party-line vote using a parliamentary procedure known as reconciliation.
Biden’s thinly-veiled veto threat prompted howls of outrage from Republicans, including those who helped to craft the bipartisan deal, who felt the president was engaging in “bait and switch tactics”. It also cast doubt on one of his main selling points — that he is a seasoned Washington operator with a knack for pulling off tricky legislative feats.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former senior congressional staffer, said the president had “jumped the gun”, adding: “Presidents don’t do that. When you say we have a deal, that usually means everybody is on the same page. That clearly was not the case.”
Jim Manley, an aide to Harry Reid, the Democratic former Senate majority leader from Nevada, said: “All of this could blow for many different reasons. There is no denying that the president’s comments last week caused a bit of a hiccup.”
Biden on Saturday attempted to limit the fallout from his comments, in a lengthy statement in which he apologised for giving “the impression that I was issuing a veto threat”.
The abrupt U-turn might have satisfied some moderate Republicans, but it stoked outrage among progressive Democrats, who are more enthusiastic about the $1.8tn anti-poverty package than the bipartisan bill. They are increasingly wary of the president’s efforts to appease Republicans and conservative members of their own party — namely Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, senators from West Virginia and Arizona, respectively.
Several leftwing House members — including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman — joined activists from the progressive Sunrise Movement outside the White House on Monday, as they protested the lack of climate measures in the bipartisan deal. Demonstrators held signs reading, “Biden you coward fight for us” and chanted: “No climate, no deal.”
The complicated political picture demonstrates the difficult balancing act Biden must perform if he wants to make good on his campaign promise to reach across the political aisle while also assuaging the concerns of a progressive left base that helped put him in the White House in the first place.
The bipartisan deal will need the support of at least 10 Republican senators — plus one Republican for every Democrat who defects and votes against the deal — if it is to become law. Given Democrats’ slim majority in the House, speaker Nancy Pelosi will also need to stave off a rebellion from Ocasio-Cortez and others if the deal is to pass the lower chamber.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, on Monday called on Biden to instruct Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and Pelosi to formally “delink” the bipartisan deal from the reconciliation package.
“Unless leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi walk back their threats . . . then President Biden’s walk back of his veto threat would be a hollow gesture,” McConnell said. “The president cannot let congressional Democrats hold a bipartisan bill hostage over a separate and partisan process.”
The White House on Monday said that Biden had now made his position clear, and that the president would make every effort to get both the bipartisan deal and the bigger reconciliation package signed into law.
But Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, refused to get drawn into specifics — including whether Schumer and Pelosi should change tack and delink the bills — arguing that it was up to them how best to move the legislation forward in Congress.
“The most impactful role . . . that the president thinks he can play . . . is to make the case to the American people, to the public, about how officials are working together to deliver for them.”
Psaki added: “That is exactly where his focus will be, and certainly [he] will work in close co-ordination with leaders in Congress, but it is up to them to determine the sequencing of the legislation.”
Capitol Hill veterans caution that McConnell’s threats should not be taken lightly, and that the Republican senator from Kentucky could scupper the legislation before the end of summer. He was not part of the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, and has not said whether he supports the resultant deal.
“[McConnell] is trying to bide his time to figure out if they are going to be able to get it past the line or not,” said Heye. “He does not expend any political capital until it is time to do so. If they have a workable deal, that is one thing, but until they do, he is going to posture as he has.”
Manley agreed, saying: “Senator McConnell played his first hand [on Monday] when he actively began to undermine the negotiations. How it plays out remains to be seen.”
Manley said there were “no freelancers” in the Republican Senate caucus, adding: “In the end, they will do whatever McConnell asks them to do.”