At the end of a virtual meeting with a small group of state governors on Tuesday, Joe Biden praised their bipartisan co-operation in ensuring America’s rapid vaccination rollout this year.
“It isn’t Democratic progress and Republican progress. It’s American progress,” the US president said.
On Wednesday, Biden will launch an effort to achieve a similar cross-party result in negotiations with Congress. For the first time since taking office he is set to host all four congressional leaders — two Democrats and two Republicans — at the White House to begin to hammer out an agreement on his spending plans, which include a $2.3tn infrastructure package and a $1.8tn expansion of the country’s social safety net.
It will be a much tougher goal, given hardened divisions over economic policy and the aversion to any kind of compromise on Capitol Hill.
Biden, who is 78-years-old, advertised his experience as a bipartisan dealmaker when he ran for president last year after honing skills over four decades as a senator and two terms as vice-president.
Early in his White House tenure he made a quick bid to win Republican support for his $1.9tn fiscal stimulus plan. But he soon moved on to getting it passed solely with Democratic votes, dismissing the opposition’s counterproposal as insufficient and underwhelming.
This time Biden is expected to give more time and space to negotiations with Republicans, partly in the hope that spending on infrastructure will appeal to them and partly to fulfil his campaign pledge to work across the political aisle. According to a White House adviser, the president is likely to stress the need for lawmakers to find common ground to make the US economy more globally competitive against economic rivals like China.
Even so, Democrats expect that the White House will have limited patience for talks with Republicans, and will be ready to again plough ahead unilaterally if no real progress is made by the end of May.
“I think there’s not a Democrat in the White House or the United States Congress who wouldn’t prefer to do this with bipartisan support,” said Eric Schultz, a former Obama administration official and Democratic strategist. “But I also think they understand that failure is not an option.”
Many Republicans have written off Biden’s overtures as a sham, saying that he was not nearly as interested in a bipartisan deal as he tries to seem and that his policies were too radical and captive to pressure from the leftwing of his party.
“Our nation is starving for more than empty platitudes. We need policies and progress that bring us closer together. But three months in, the actions of the president and his party are pulling us further apart,” Tim Scott, the Republican senator from South Carolina, warned during his response to Biden’s joint address to Congress two weeks ago.
Republican leaders have shown little inclination to suddenly warm up to Biden. Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, has moved to align his rank-and-file lawmakers closer to former president Donald Trump, while Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said last week that “100 per cent” of his focus would be on opposing Biden’s agenda. Both were invited to Wednesday’s meeting at the White House.
Some Democrats doubt that Biden will find willing partners among Republicans even if he makes big concessions.
“Republicans don’t have a legislative agenda. They have a ‘whatever keeps Trump happy agenda’ and that changes by the minute,” said Josh Schwerin, a Democratic strategist and president of Saratoga Strategies, a consultancy. “So you really can’t say, ‘OK, what do they support? Let’s go work with that,’ because they don’t support anything concrete.”
But an agreement cannot be entirely ruled out, either. Biden has signalled that he was open to compromise on the tax increases he wants to enact to pay for his spending plans, suggesting he might accept a rise in the corporate income tax rate from 21 per cent to 25 per cent rather than the 28 per cent proposed under his original plan.
McConnell said he might consider infrastructure spending worth up to $800bn — still far below Biden’s target, but more than the $568bn recently proposed by a group of Senate Republicans.
Meanwhile, Biden spent the early part of this week meeting with pivotal moderate Democrats — such as senators Tom Carper of Delaware, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — to gauge their stance on any deal.
On Thursday, he is due to meet a group of centrist Republican senators led by Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia to assess their willingness to reach an agreement. Meanwhile, the Associated Press has reported that Biden has been attempting to charm lawmakers who visit the Oval Office by handing them chocolate chip cookies on their way out the door.
“This is crunch time, but this is how Biden operates: he is at his best when he is working across the aisle,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist. “He said it very clearly that he would compromise, and I think the Republicans are going to remind him that he said that publicly, and see what they can get out of it.”