By JONATHAN LEMIRE, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) – Day after day, as partisan battle lines hardened on Capitol Hill over President Joe Biden’s national agenda, his calls for bipartisanship seemed increasingly out of place.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said his goal was to focus “100%” on stopping Biden’s program. Progressive Democrats, meanwhile, pushed Biden to use the brute force of even the smallest majority to pass legislation without any GOP support.
But on Thursday it was Biden, the compromise-trained Washington careerist, standing outside the White House, flanked by Democrats and Republicans, claiming that a bipartisan deal had been reached on a $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure package. dollars.
And, like a dream streak from another era, senators from both parties dutifully talked about the virtues of not getting everything you want and trying to achieve something that has been very elusive in Washington for more. of a decade: the consensus.
“It has been a very long time since our country was able to strike a major bipartisan deal on American infrastructure, which is so necessary, I might add,” Biden said. “We have spent far too much energy competing with each other and not enough energy competing with the rest of the world to win the 21st century. “
Biden had campaigned on his ability to strike deals across the aisle, and Thursday’s announcement was an undeniable victory, a victory that could give moderate Democrats a nervous cover, as they will likely be asked to support the rest of the president’s agenda based on the party line. .
But the accomplishment itself was shaky, one that faces opposition on the liberal flank of his own party and one that is much smaller than that initially proposed by Biden. And the president’s promise that he would sign the bipartisan accord only if a much larger $ 4 trillion reconciliation bill – which contained his other priorities – also came to his office made the possibility that the celebration very real. Thursday’s bipartisanship could end up being fleeting.
This is not a new “era of good feelings”.
Still, Biden has proven that not all of his stated intentions to work with Republicans were to simply burnish his image as a moderate with swing voters.
From the moment he announced his 2020 campaign, his third White House try, he insisted he could restore a sense of bipartisan courtesy to Washington. He seemed oblivious to the hyperpartisan that had taken hold of the capital, a building since the 1990s and had accelerated considerably under the conflicting presidency of Donald Trump.
The quest to make it through the aisle remained unreal after taking office.
Although the nation is grappling with the pandemic, not a single Republican lawmaker on Capitol Hill voted for the president’s $ 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, even though it benefited from broad support among GOP voters. Spurred on by Trump, who had instigated an insurgency on Capitol Hill to prevent certification of Biden’s very election, a growing number of Republicans have propagated the lie that the 2020 campaign was fraudulent and doubted the president’s legitimacy.
And McConnell, whom Biden often referred to as a friend with whom he could do business, had built a solid wall of defiance among Republicans determined to thwart the president’s agenda.
Republicans ‘vocal intransigence only fueled Democrats’ concerns about Biden’s approach, which many saw as an unnecessary waste of time. They asked why a president who promised to act with such urgency, and who presented a sweeping liberal agenda to rival those drafted by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, would waste time courting obstructionist Republicans.
Historically, however, bipartisanship is not unusual for infrastructure packages – the last major infrastructure bill in 2015, costing more than $ 300 billion, was passed overwhelmingly by Congress.
But the Democrats’ current margins are low: only a handful of House seats while the Senate is at 50-50, with ties broken by Vice President Kamala Harris. And as time is running out towards the mid-terms, many members of the party’s left flank have urged Biden to abandon the bipartisan effort and go it alone.
But Biden had bet his political capital that he could work with Republicans and show that “what American democracy can offer” and be a counterexample to growing global autocracies, namely China.
“This agreement signals to the world that we can operate, deliver and do important things,” the president said. “These investments represent the kind of national effort that, throughout our history, has literally – not figuratively – literally transformed America and propelled us into the future.”
Biden and his aides also believed they needed a bipartisan infrastructure deal to create a licensing structure for more moderate Democrats – including Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – to then be ready to vote for the party line. rest of the president’s agenda.
And some Liberals, like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have pitched the theory that giving moderates in his party a victory on it will help others on the left keep up the pressure to pass the bigger bill.
But there were limits to what was achieved.
Congress was due to draft an annual infrastructure bill by the end of September, which required 10 Republican votes, so the bill passed Thursday simply broadened and accelerated a package that was already on the horizon.
Moreover, the new bill was well below the roughly $ 2 trillion it originally sought, which continued to anger the left. And while he focused on physical infrastructure – things like highways, subways, and broadband – he left much of what Biden proposed earlier this year, including sweeping reforms, hanging in the air. housing, child care and efforts to fight climate change.
These White House priorities, the administration said, would now be addressed separately as part of a congressional budget process known as reconciliation, which only requires a simple majority to pass. And Biden made it clear that the two would be done “in tandem” and that he wouldn’t sign the bipartisan deal without the other, bigger one.
Manchin and Sinema signaled Thursday that they support the approach, but doubts remained as to whether all Democrats would stay in the line to pass the massive bill.
But McConnell said Biden’s insistence on pairing the two bills – one of which would almost certainly not receive GOP support – has undermined his bipartisan outreach and “almost makes your head spin.”
“An expression of bipartisanship, then an ultimatum from your left base,” proclaimed the Republican leader.
But Biden wasn’t happy until Thursday that he had secured GOP support for the deal, a deal he said spoke to his political North star: the bipartisan spirit of yesteryear. As if to symbolize his efforts, the former Delaware senator even put his hand on the shoulder of a stoic-looking Republican senator. Rob Portman of Ohio as the president made a surprise appearance with a bipartisan group of senators to announce the basis for a deal. outside the White House.
“It reminds me of when we did a lot of work in the United States Congress,” Biden said.
Jonathan Lemire has been covering the White House and politics for the Associated Press since 2013.
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