The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden is reaching out to Republicans. But his real target is Joe Manchin.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP)
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After Republicans met with President Biden at the White House on Wednesday, they once again made clear what everybody in Washington knows: They will never, ever, ever agree to pay for infrastructure repair and job creation by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

“We’re not interested in reopening the 2017 tax bill,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) flatly declared, in a reference to the 2017 GOP tax cuts lavishing great benefits on the rich that Democrats want to partially reverse.

Referring to himself and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif)., who was also at the meeting, McConnell said they “made clear to the president” that not touching the 2017 tax law was their “red line.”

If you’re getting the sense that Republicans are not exactly negotiating in good faith, you’re right. But that may be just fine with the president.

The best way to understand these discussions with Republicans is that they’re really about someone who isn’t in the room: Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.), the 50th Senate vote for any Democratic bill and the person who needs to be convinced to give Biden the victory he’s after.

Above all, Manchin must be able to say that a serious effort to win over Republicans was made, both by the White House and by Senate Democrats. Then it will be easier for him to agree to pass the final package by the simple-majority reconciliation process.

To be clear, one can envision a compromise with Republicans here. One way it might happen is if Democrats and Republicans agree on a package that’s just focused on the GOP idea of “real” infrastructure, i.e., roads, bridges, waterways and ports.

Theoretically, 10 Senate Republicans could support such a thing, giving it 60 votes, and then Democrats could pass all the other stuff they want to do — investments in clean energy, caregiving infrastructure, expanded college access, etc. — in a separate package via reconciliation.

But even if 10 Republicans did settle on a level of spending on that first package acceptable to Democrats (and Republicans have proposed something that doesn’t even add up to the $600 billion in spending that it advertises), Republicans won’t agree to pay for it with anything other than a regressive gas tax or user fees.

It’s important to note that Manchin has already moved toward compromising with Republicans on paying for even a limited infrastructure package. While Biden has proposed raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent, Manchin has said he prefers 25 percent.

That sets up a fairly obvious endgame.

Manchin is invested — personally and politically — in the idea of bipartisanship. For him to vote for a partisan infrastructure bill — the only kind there will be — he must be able to say that he did so reluctantly, regretfully, and only because Republicans left him no choice.

How does Biden get Manchin from here to there? Bipartisan Oval Office meetings are part of the plan. The only way Manchin will be part of a purely party-line vote for infrastructure is at the end of an extended process in which Biden makes repeated attempts to bring Republicans in, attempts that are clearly rejected by McConnell.

We’ve seen this before. When Democrats were trying to pass their big covid-19 relief package, Manchin conspicuously refused to go along with reconciliation, instead insisting on efforts to win GOP support. Only after this, said Manchin, would reconciliation be “appropriate.”

Of course, that GOP support never materialized, and Democrats did end up passing the plan by reconciliation, with Manchin’s backing.

We wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Democrats might reach an agreement with Republicans on an infrastructure bill that isn’t paid for with the tax hikes Biden wants. Perhaps it could be funded by deficit spending. But Republicans aren’t going to agree to those tax hikes, and they claim to abhor deficit spending as well.

Which leaves an endgame like the above as the most likely outcome. The more Biden reaches out to Republicans, only to be met with “red lines,” the wider the space for Manchin to walk through will be. Other moderate Democrats may also want to see this, but Manchin is the most important one.

What’s strange about this debate is that everyone covering it knows perfectly well that Republicans are operating in bad faith. Indeed, just after the meeting, this happened:

In a campaign text to supporters shortly after the meeting, Mr. McCarthy sought to raise money by saying, “I just met with Corrupt Joe Biden and he’s STILL planning to push his radical Socialist agenda onto the American people.”

Yet despite such naked displays, much media coverage will still advance the idea that Biden has failed in some sense in his inability to win over Republicans, even though reporters themselves know it’s not possible.

No matter. The most important person who needs to be persuaded that this isn’t possible is Manchin. And that very well may happen sooner rather than later.

Read more:

Jeff Flake: In today’s Republican Party, there is no greater offense than honesty

Greg Sargent: 100 Republicans are vowing a GOP ‘civil war.’ Here’s why that’s good news.

Liz Cheney: The GOP is at a turning point. History is watching us.

Paul Waldman: Ted Cruz just sent a very important message to Joe Manchin