The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden wants bipartisanship to fail and for the GOP to be blamed for it

President Biden speaks last week in the East Room of the White House. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Last week, I predicted that President Biden would reach a “compromise” with Republicans on a hard infrastructure package of roughly $800 billion, hold a bipartisan signing ceremony at the White House, and then pass the other $1.5 trillion in his plan using the budget reconciliation process, which requires no GOP votes. That way, he’d get everything he wanted — his whole $2.3 trillion plan — just in two bites, while getting credit for delivering on his promise of bipartisanship.

I was wrong. Apparently, Biden doesn’t care about getting credit for bipartisanship. He just doesn’t want the blame for killing it.

That’s the clear message of the president’s “counteroffer” to Republicans. With great fanfare, his administration announced he was ready to cut his spending plan from $2.3 trillion to $1.7 trillion, but warned the president was ready to go it alone if Republicans did not come up significantly from their $800 billion offer.

On the surface, this might seem like a good-faith effort to negotiate. In truth, it’s not.

First of all, it is simply insanity that anyone would consider Biden’s plan to spend $1.7 trillion a major concession — or Republicans offering to spend $800 billion chump change. The 2009 stimulus was $787 billion, and was considered a massive amount of money at the time. Today, it’s not even considered a serious proposal.

Second, Biden didn’t really cut his plan at all. The vast majority of the reduction came from moving $480 billion in funding for research, development and manufacturing initiatives from the infrastructure package to another bill, the Endless Frontier Act being considered on the Senate floor. Biden’s only actual cuts came from getting rid of $74 billion for hard infrastructure projects that enjoy bipartisan support, such as roads, bridges and broadband. He made no real reductions to the non-infrastructure spending that comprises the vast majority of his original plan.

Biden’s play is obvious: He wants bipartisanship to fail and for Republicans to be blamed for its failure. His original plan included just $821 billion in actual infrastructure spending, which he has now reduced to $747 billion. That means, to increase their offer above $800 billion, Republicans would have to go along with Biden’s Orwellian redefinition of “infrastructure” and agree to spend hundreds of billions on the non-infrastructure items in his package.

The president knows the GOP will never go along with this. But making a pretense of negotiating with Republicans will appeal to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va), who has made bipartisanship a priority, and whose vote Biden needs to pass his bill along party lines in a 50-50 Senate. So, Biden is trying to force Republicans to walk away from the table first. That way he can claim to have tried his best to negotiate a bipartisan compromise — and then pass as much of his original plan as possible without a single GOP vote.

The question is: Why would Biden forgo the chance to get everything he wanted split into two bills — one with GOP support, the other without? It seems like a no-brainer: He could appear to deliver on his campaign promise to unite Republicans and Democrats without giving up a penny. Here is why: The president wants to use this “infrastructure” bill as a vehicle to pass all sorts of non-infrastructure spending, just as he used his “covid-19 relief” bill to pass all sorts of non-covid-19 spending. If he agreed to an $800 billion bipartisan compromise that included all the funding for actual infrastructure projects, then he would have to pass the other $1.5 trillion in social spending without the roads and bridges as cover.

Biden understands that most Americans aren’t paying attention to the details. They supported a robust bill to help us recover from the pandemic, and they support a bill to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. But more than a trillion dollars in stand-alone social spending unrelated to either of those priorities is a much harder sell.

Biden knows that he was not elected to enact a radical, left-wing agenda. When Republicans warned he would do so, he laughed and said, “I beat the socialist! ... Do I look like a socialist?” He won the White House by promising to pursue bipartisanship. But now he is breaking that promise in an effort to jam through as much socialist spending as he can on party-line votes. Biden knows he can either unite the country or be the most progressive president in American history — but he can’t do both. So, he’s given up on unity. He just wants to avoid the blame for doing so.

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