Congressional Republicans erupted on Friday after President Biden pledged to reject a bipartisan infrastructure deal unless Congress also approves a broader Democratic spending package.
“If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it,” Biden said of the bipartisan deal. “It’s in tandem.”
Republicans said Friday that the White House’s stance came as a surprise to them and could unravel the entire bipartisan agreement. The sudden discord marked a major reversal from the day before, when Democrats and Republicans appeared outside the White House and boasted of a revived spirit of bipartisanship.
In a sign that the White House knew Biden’s comments may have done some damage, some of his top aides reached out personally to members of the bipartisan group that negotiated the agreement to tout the president’s personal enthusiasm for it, especially the economic boon it would create.
Part of the message from Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, and Louisa Terrell, the White House director of legislative affairs, to the senators was that Biden plans to travel throughout the country to promote the infrastructure package — not only on its merits but the fact that it was bipartisan, according to a White House official.
The group of senators who negotiated with the White House held a conference call Friday afternoon to discuss the fallout, according to two people aware of the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal the private discussion.
The 11 Republicans who had endorsed the framework, including Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Jerry Moran (Kan.), had a separate call Friday morning, where multiple members discussed their frustration with Biden’s comments. Some of them wanted to put out a statement clarifying that they had not agreed to condition the bipartisan plan on a partisan reconciliation package, according to two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
On the call, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he wanted to focus on trying to get moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to oppose linking the two bills, the people said, an approach Moran said he supports.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who had endorsed the deal, tweeted on Friday: “No deal by extortion! It was never suggested to me during these negotiations that President Biden was holding hostage the bipartisan infrastructure proposal unless a liberal reconciliation package was also passed. … I can’t imagine any other Republican had that impression.”
“It completely violates the spirit of the deal. The Republicans involved in negotiations feel betrayed and made fools of for agreeing to a deal in which the Democrats will ultimately get everything they want,” said Brian Riedl, a former aide to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who helped lead the discussions. “Moderate Republicans had an understanding that they were scaling down the cost of the final deal, not simply transferring that cost to a second bill.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Republicans could oppose the bipartisan deal at their own peril. Notably, she did not repeat Biden’s vow to reject the bipartisan agreement if it arrives without a reconciliation package that addresses all other Democratic priorities.
The bipartisan deal included hundreds of billions of dollars in funding for new roads, bridges, highways, ports and bridges, along with funding for water infrastructure, high-speed broadband, the electric grid and other priorities.
“It will be up to Republicans to decide if they’re going to vote against a historic investment in infrastructure … simply because they do not like the mechanics of the process,” Psaki said. “That’s a pretty absurd argument for them to make; good luck on the political front.”
In private, the White House downplayed the chaotic back-and-forth that ensued in the first 24 hours after the agreement was struck and expressed confidence that the initial ruckus would eventually settle once senators focus on the merits of the package. Administration officials also believe there are some Republicans — who didn’t negotiate the agreement — as well as some in their own party who may want the bipartisan deal to fail.
Still, the White House has been clear on its intentions for months that it hoped to pass both the bipartisan deal and the Democratic reconciliation package, and Republicans have known both bills were likely coming. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier this month: “We are anticipating at some point getting a reconciliation bill.”
Some Senate Democrats said Republicans should not have been surprised by the president’s position.
“You don’t have to pretend to believe that Republicans haven’t been reading the news for the last two months when legislative leaders said explicitly that we were moving on two tracks,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said on Twitter. “You don’t have to pretend to believe that they are surprised or angry.”