The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Facing GOP opposition, Biden seeks to redefine bipartisanship

President Biden speaks at the White House last week. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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To hear President Biden and his team tell it, a successful bipartisan bill need not attract a single Republican vote.

Biden pushed his $1.9 trillion covid relief bill through the Senate with the support of all 50 Democrats and nary a Republican, yet later declared it a resounding bipartisan triumph.

The president and his advisers have also signaled that, while they are planning robust outreach to Republican lawmakers, they are prepared to pass his infrastructure plan on the votes of Democrats alone — and call it a bipartisan victory.

“If you looked up ‘bipartisan’ in the dictionary, I think it would say support from Republicans and Democrats,” said Anita Dunn, a senior Biden adviser. “It doesn’t say the Republicans have to be in Congress.”

As the Biden administration prepares to pursue a broad agenda ranging from infrastructure to immigration to guns, the president and his aides have proffered a definition of bipartisanship untethered from Washington — pointing to broad public support for many Democratic policies among voters in both parties, as well as Republican governors, mayors and other local officials.

“Everybody said I had no bipartisan support,” Biden said recently in Pittsburgh, referring to the covid relief package as he unveiled the broad outlines of his infrastructure plan. “The overwhelming bipartisan support were Republican — registered Republican voters.”

Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago and chief of staff to former president Barack Obama, put it bluntly: “What’s become crystal clear is that Biden has redefined bipartisan.”

“It isn’t how many Republicans I’ve got,” Emanuel added. “It’s about how many Republican voters or mayors and governors can I get to support my stuff. And Washington is slow to catch up to the Biden definition.”

But many Republicans — and some moderate Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — have raised objections to that approach, calling on Biden to adopt a more traditional definition of bipartisanship. In a tweet earlier this month, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) argued that the narrow divide in the Senate should push Biden toward the political middle.

“A Senate evenly split between both parties and a bare Democratic House majority are hardly a mandate to ‘go it alone,’ ” Romney wrote. “The President should live up to the bipartisanship he preached in his inaugural address.”

Biden’s allies say his distinctive take on bipartisanship is born out of political calculation and practicality. After unexpectedly winning both Georgia Senate seats in a January runoff, Democrats still barely control a 50-50 Senate and have a narrow majority in the House.

The president and his team are interested in wooing what Emanuel calls “Biden Republicans” — those voters who find themselves uncomfortable in a party that largely considers former president Donald Trump its leader. These Republicans, they say, may be amenable to supporting at least some of Biden’s priorities, if not Biden himself.

Biden also ran promising to be the “president for all Americans,” and he can best do that by focusing on the country at large rather than just 100 senators and 435 House members in the nation’s capital, aides say.

They say the president has concluded that he may need to muscle through many of his legislative goals using a budgetary process known as reconciliation, which requires a simple majority rather than a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate.

Congressional Republicans said on April 11 President Biden's infrastructure plan is too expensive — and too wide ranging to be called an “infrastructure” bill. (Video: The Washington Post)

“The Biden definition of bipartisanship is an agenda that unifies the country and appeals across the political spectrum,” said Mike Donilon, a senior Biden adviser. “I think it’s a pretty good definition to say you’re pursuing an agenda that will unite the country, that will bring Democrats and Republicans together across the country. Presumably, if you have an agenda that is broadly popular with Democrats and Republicans across the country, then you should have elected representatives reflecting that.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has also signaled the administration may need to dispense with Republican votes in pursuit of a broad infrastructure package.

“The president really believes in a bipartisan approach, and it’s one of the reasons that I’m constantly having conversations with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, gathering ideas,” Buttigieg said recently on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But the president also has a clear vision, and as he said, this has to get done. . . . And we can’t let politics slow this down to where it doesn’t actually happen.”

The White House has engaged in outreach to Republicans. Last week, White House and agency officials held briefings on the infrastructure bill for Republican staffers on several key House committees, a White House official said. All 100 senators were also invited to attend a Zoom meeting with Brian Deese, Biden’s senior economic adviser, and with Cabinet officials, the official said, and 60 attended. And the Office of Legislative Affairs reached out to more than 50 Republican senators, representatives or their chiefs of staff, the official said.

But Republicans — particularly some moderates who might be candidates for compromise — remain frustrated. In a statement to The Washington Post last week, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) expressed a desire for a “robust infrastructure package” but offered a note of skepticism on the sincerity of the administration’s outreach.

“The question before us is this: is this outreach the beginning of a true negotiation, or is the administration so wedded to the details of its plan, including its exorbitant top line, that these are just courtesy briefings?” she wrote.

Collins added, “I have no reason to believe that his entire philosophy has changed, but I do think that there is a lot of pressure on him from his staff and from outside far-left groups.”

Moderate Democrats have also made clear to the president that they are eager for legislation to pass with the support of both parties. In a Washington Post op-ed on Wednesday, Manchin said he will not help weaken or eliminate the filibuster — a procedural maneuver that allows a single member of the minority party to block most legislation by requiring a 60-vote threshold.

“The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation,” Manchin wrote.

Speaking about his infrastructure proposal Wednesday, Biden signaled an openness to compromise: “Debate is welcome, compromise is inevitable, changes are certain,” he said.

But the president has also been clear about articulating his new definition of bipartisanship. During his first news conference in March, he was asked whether he had rejected bipartisanship.

“No, I haven’t at all,” he said.

“I would like Republican — elected Republican — support,” Biden said. “But what I have now is, I have electoral support from Republican voters. Republican voters agree with what I’m doing.”

Biden has at times overstated the level of GOP support for his policies. Across five national polls since late February, for example, between 54 percent and 73 percent of Republicans opposed the $1.9 trillion stimulus package.

But the bill enjoyed majority support from the public overall, and a CNN poll in March found that a majority of Republicans backed specific parts of it — including larger tax credits for families (73 percent), additional funding to help schools resume in-person classes (55 percent) and stimulus checks up to $1,400 to most families and individuals (55 percent).

John Giles, the Republican mayor of Mesa, Ariz., said that covid and remote learning exposed the need for rural broadband access in his community, one of the reasons he is cautiously supportive of Biden’s infrastructure plan.

“This is a huge bill, there is everything in the kitchen sink in it,” Giles said. “It would absolutely benefit from a lot of bipartisan discussion.”

But Giles also said he thinks Biden’s more liberal definition of bipartisanship is “a legitimate point of view” and “one he’s been forced into.”

“What we’ve seen over and over the last couple of presidential administrations is that the minority party or the party not in power falls back to defining success as preventing success on the part of the administration,” Giles said.

But, he added, “I think everybody agrees that compromise and bipartisanship would be a much better way to do things.”