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White House to face key decisions on climate, elder care if bipartisan deal with GOP emerges

Senate group has called for a smaller infrastructure package than what Biden envisioned

White House Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo talk with others after a meeting with Senate Republicans to talk about Infrastructure on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Biden is expected to soon face crucial decisions over his domestic agenda as his commitment to aggressive action on climate change and care for the elderly collides with his push for a bipartisan infrastructure deal.

In multiple rounds of talks, Republican lawmakers have held firm in opposition against key White House plans to address the changing climate, add $400 billion in funding for elder care, and a slew of other domestic priorities the administration is pushing for families and children. The GOP is set to affirm its opposition on Thursday about 9 a.m., when lawmakers led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) are expected to present Biden their latest counter-offer. This could amount to a plan as large as $1 trillion that Republicans have said would be focused on roads, bridges, pipes and other forms of traditional infrastructure.

A second bipartisan group of lawmakers, meanwhile, is readying its own backup plan that is also likely to jettison some key climate and elder-care policies pushed by the White House. If centrists in both parties strike a deal, Biden probably would be forced to choose between accepting a compromise that leaves out these proposals, or rejecting a bipartisan infrastructure deal aides have long sought as a political triumph.

If they choose to embrace a narrower package, senior Democrats have said they would come back after the bipartisan deal and pass an additional package with the remaining priorities. But concerns have grown among some allies of the White House that doing so will prove difficult in a narrowly divided Congress.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on May 21 said the administration is open to reducing the cost of its infrastructure proposal to reach a bipartisan deal. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Erin Scott/The Washington Post)

Complicating matters is that some of Democrats’ climate goals could be accomplished through separate bipartisan negotiations occurring at the committee level among lawmakers. And passing infrastructure or climate legislation with Democratic-only votes could present its own challenges, given the limits around the budget procedure they would need to use to pass legislation with a narrow majority.

The White House has proposed an approximately $2.3 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan that includes the elder-care and clean energy components, as well as a second $1.8 trillion plan focused on education, health care, and other domestic priorities. Negotiations between the White House and Republicans over the infrastructure plan have appeared to stall in recent weeks, leading Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) to start bipartisan discussions on a potential compromise. Romney said Tuesday that the group would focus on physical infrastructure such as roads, bridges, trains and broadband Internet. Other informal groups of centrist lawmakers are also working on a potential compromise.

Liberals and environmental groups are wary that a narrow infrastructure deal now may lead centrist lawmakers to lose interest in advancing other expensive legislation, which could leave climate and other progressive priorities on the cutting-room floor. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has pushed for the White House to combine the infrastructure and families plan into one overarching package. Leah Hunt-Hendrix, co-founder of Way to Win, a network of progressive political donors, said the White House should stop “dancing around bipartisanship” given GOP opposition to confronting climate change.

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“They’re going to try to sell us on the idea that they’ll do the leftovers as part of a bigger package, but the truth is that there’s an enormous amount of speculation and nobody really knows what they’ll be able to do,” one White House adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to reveal conversations with administration officials.

A bloc of centrist Democrats has been adamant that the White House seek a bipartisan infrastructure deal, which may give the administration little wiggle room to try passing one without GOP votes.

The White House rejects the idea that it is willing to leave action on climate unaddressed in negotiations with Congress. The White House counter-offer to the GOP last week lowered the overall price tag of the proposal but maintained both the elder-care and climate-related components. Biden repeatedly has emphasized the danger posed by climate change, and longtime aides say the president is personally committed to aggressive action on the issue.

The decisions over the president’s economic agenda are expected to fall to the president and a handful of his most senior political advisers, including Chief of Staff Ron Klain and longtime Biden aide Steve Ricchetti. Many environmentalists closely watching the negotiations are optimistic that Klain — a longtime climate hawk — would not accept legislative action that leaves out meaningful climate action.

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“I could be wrong and could eat my words but I believe, deeply, that the White House is committed to climate action. We have people there who really care about the climate issue,” said Leah Stokes, an expert in environmental policy at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Other close observers of the negotiations express confidence that substantial climate action is likely, despite potential reluctance from centrist Democrats over the amount of federal spending approved by the federal government. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the most conservative Democrat, has already been outspoken about legislation to encourage the building of clean-energy plants in coal communities, noted Josh Freed, who leads the climate and energy program at Third Way, a center-left think tank. Centrist Democrats also have pushed legislation including $2 billion for electric charging infrastructure, and Manchin has endorsed other significant clean-energy tax credits and advanced manufacturing.

“I am confident that if there is a bipartisan deal on infrastructure, there is still an enormous amount that will get done through reconciliation,” Freed said.

That could be easier said than done, however. If a narrow bipartisan infrastructure package is passed, Democrats may have the votes to pass some parts of the families package — such as paid parental leave and an extension of the child tax benefit set to expire at the end of this year — but not aggressive climate action, said G. William Hoagland, a former Senate GOP aide now with the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“I don’t think the votes are there in a reconciliation bill for the climate infrastructure-type issues,” Hoagland said.

Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who leads a climate-focused task force with the moderate-leaning New Democrat Coalition, said she did not “think they’re there yet” on abandoning talks with Republicans over infrastructure overhaul, cautioning that the process takes time. But she said she thinks it’s unwise to shift clean-energy provisions out of the legislation in a bid to seek compromise given the importance of that spending to the future of the economy — and the difficulty Democrats may face in tackling it later on.

“There’s no question an infrastructure package at this point in time has to include those green jobs, sustainable energy projects, electric vehicles — there’s no question in my mind,” she said, later adding: “The problem with not including them is you run the risk they never happen.”

Dean Baker, a liberal economist, pointed out that if centrists such as Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) oppose the broader spending package, then Biden would not be able to pass it with or without a bipartisan infrastructure bill. The Senate is split 50-50, giving Democrats only a one-vote margin because of Vice President Harris’s ability to break a tie.

“Manchin has a veto here, so if he’s not on board with doing a big bill through reconciliation, [Biden] is not giving anything up by doing a more narrow infrastructure package in a bipartisan way,” Baker said.