Tuesday's split screen signaled the start of a challenging new phase of Biden's push to enact a sweeping investment in the country's infrastructure and make good on his promise of bipartisanship in the post-Trump era. After a botched rollout that required days of cleanup, Biden hit the road to sell the infrastructure compromise to a polarized country while his aides worked to build support in a Congress where partisanship, cultural divisions and intraparty divides run deep.
Biden framed the plan as a unifying force. “This bipartisan breakthrough is a great deal for the American people — not just for folks in cities, not just for red states or blue states, but for everybody,” Biden said in a speech at a local transit utility. “This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America.”
The White House has signaled that Biden will continue traveling throughout the country to sell the plan, a task he embraced with some urgency Tuesday. “This is a generational investment — a generational investment — to modernize our infrastructure,” he said.
Biden made explicit appeals to working-class Americans, many of whom have gravitated toward the GOP in recent years over anxieties about job losses and the effects of globalization, including here in the heavily White Upper Midwest. The president repeatedly argued the plan would help the United States compete with China, a country he said was “way outworking us in terms of infrastructure.”
The proposal is a “signal to ourselves and to the world that American democracy can come through and deliver for all our people,” the president said.
But the obstacles Biden must overcome to get his plan across the finish line — some of which he acknowledged in his speech — were in plain sight. Questions emerged in Washington about exactly how the bill will be financed and whether the ideas that negotiators have offered are sufficient.
On top of that, uncertainty persists about whether the bill will be held up by a companion plan, pushed by liberal Democrats, that is focused on social programs and will probably attract no Republican support. That proposal, which tackles what Biden has referred to as “human infrastructure,” continued to loom over the negotiations.
In a closed-door meeting with fellow Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday reiterated an earlier pledge that the House would not consider the bipartisan package until the Senate had approved the Democratic bill, according to an official familiar with her remarks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting.
Biden delivered a similar — but more aggressive — ultimatum last week. His comments linking the two bills angered moderate Republicans who support the bipartisan deal but not the more partisan plan, nearly derailing the talks after a breakthrough moment.
The president later backed off his all-or-nothing approach, and some Republicans are demanding that he press Pelosi to do the same. If she insists on linking the compromise plan to the Democratic measure, some GOP senators warn they might vote against the compromise, potentially dooming it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday that Biden “cannot let congressional Democrats hold a bipartisan bill hostage over a separate and partisan process.”
Pushing in the other direction are liberal lawmakers urging Biden to insist on the more liberal measure, which Democrats hope to pass in the Senate with a simple majority under a parliamentary process called “reconciliation.” Most bills take 60 votes to pass the Senate.
Some left-leaning lawmakers say Biden’s statements of his position should not determine whether Democrats in Congress insist on the liberal bill.
“The statements are irrelevant,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said Monday. “The currency in Washington is votes. Everyone knows that a bipartisan deal can't pass the House without a robust reconciliation [bill] tackling climate.”
As Biden was touring the facility in La Crosse, his top aides met privately in Washington with 10 members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, a centrist group that has endorsed an infrastructure framework that hews closely to the bipartisan deal.
“We have built a strong coalition to ensure we can pass a bipartisan infrastructure package through both chambers,” Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), the group’s co-chairs, said in a statement. “We cannot miss this historic opportunity to show the American people that both sides of the aisle can work together to deliver real results for the nation.”
In a meeting with another group, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, administration officials and lawmakers spoke at length about the importance of the American Families Plan, attendees said. Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, and Louisa Terrell and Shuwanza Goff, top officials in the White House legislative-affairs office, also outlined provisions in the bipartisan package that they viewed as wins for liberals.
The Biden officials were also receptive to the liberals’ push to include such items as Medicare expansion and a pathway to citizenship in the reconciliation package, according to attendees. But Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said that “nothing was promised” by the White House.
“One of the things we said is, we need to make sure that even as the president is promoting the bipartisan package that he’s also promoting the reconciliation package,” Jayapal said. “They understand.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who also attended the discussion, added that left-leaning members now “feel better about the strategy.”
The trio of White House advisers also met with the New Democrat Coalition, a caucus of center-left Democrats in the House, according to aides.
The bulk of Biden’s focus in La Crosse was on the bipartisan plan, which focuses on big investments in transportation projects, waterways and electric-vehicle charging, among other things. Biden argued that such repairs and upgrades are issues of public safety, health and the environment and that projects to address them will have the added benefit of creating good-paying jobs.
He cited structural deficiencies in Wisconsin's bridges, problems with lead water lines in the state and other reasons an overhaul is urgently needed here. He joined a discussion about hybrid buses with a local bus driver who said that diesel buses are noisier and emit strong fumes.
“It’s not picking on Wisconsin,” Biden said in his speech after ticking off repairs needed in the state. “Every state’s like this.”
In a reflection of Biden’s careful choreography, he devoted most of his speech to the bipartisan deal but saved room at the end for the social spending package, known as the “American Families Plan.”
“I’m going to continue to make the case there are critical investments that are still needed, including those in my Family Plan,” Biden said. That blueprint includes proposals such as universal preschool and two years of free community college. “The human infrastructure is intertwined with our physical infrastructure,” Biden said.
Biden has been selective about the areas he has visited as president, traveling to the battlegrounds that helped decide the 2020 election and are expected to factor heavily into the midterm contests and the 2024 presidential race.
Wisconsin was one of the most closely contested states in 2020. Biden eked out a narrow victory there four years after Donald Trump won an upset there over Hillary Clinton.
La Crosse, which was built along the Mississippi River, sits in a county Biden won, but it is part of a congressional district that is more conservative and rural. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), a moderate who represents the area, accompanied Biden during Tuesday’s visit.
Last Tuesday — before Biden and the bipartisan Senate group reached their compromise agreement — the White House had announced the president would travel to southwest Wisconsin with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to talk about rural economies. After the deal was announced, the visit was revamped to focus on infrastructure.
Biden’s advisers are trying to move the public discussion away from a debate over congressional procedure, and whether the two big bills will be linked or not, toward more talk of the actual components of the bipartisan bill.
But many liberal Democrats see it as crucial for Biden to lean into the American Families Plan, believing that the process for advancing the bills will reveal the White House's policy priorities.
“It’s not just a wish list. It’s a requirement,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said of the American Families Plan on Monday. “It’s fundamental to our future.”
At the end of his speech, Biden acknowledged the hurdles on the horizon. “There will be more disagreements to resolve, more compromises to forge along the way,” he said.
“But today,” Biden said, Americans “can be proud” of bipartisan progress.
Kim reported from Washington.