Purported GOP “centrists” are irritated with Joe Biden. And some White House aides are doing damage control duty.
Last week, a handful of readers seemed flummoxed by the derisive cadence I adopted while outlining and editorializing around the bipartisan infrastructure proposal formally unveiled on Thursday.
One line of criticism is straightforward: $579 billion in new spending is laughably insufficient to modernize the nation’s infrastructure and recalibrate the world’s largest economy. Overall spending of $1.2 trillion spread over eight years is the furthest thing from impressive. There is no sense (none) in which the bipartisan proposal is “transformational.”
But that wasn’t really my point in the three linked articles (above). The point, rather, was that the inevitability of a reconciliation bill (which will allow Democrats to skirt the filibuster on the way to pushing the rest of the White House’s agenda through Congress) almost by definition meant that all the boasting of “bipartisanship” around the infrastructure proposal was nothing more than a pretense. It was a charade engineered over pizza and wine, so that Biden, Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney and anyone else whose reputation is inextricably bound up with the word “moderate,” could bask in a photo op on the way to claiming that America’s legislature isn’t completely dysfunctional.
Biden essentially admitted as much. “In a post-January 6 world, it shows that people who come from different political views can still come together on national priorities,” he said. Jon Tester was more direct, noting that if the deal collapsed, it would show voters that “we’re really, really, really dysfunctional” — that’s three “really”s, if you’re keeping score at home.
The plan, apparently, was for Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to keep Progressives at bay with a steady drumbeat of promises to move ahead with a more comprehensive bill. They did just that last week, affording Biden the latitude to pacify Democrats without rankling the moderate Republicans who signed onto the infrastructure proposal — he could simply acknowledge that “Chuck and Nancy” are advancing the additional legislation while parroting the usual talking points about how, in his view, the country needs to take a more holistic view when it comes to retooling the economy.
If pressed by reporters, Biden could just state the obvious: Any legislation which brings the nation closer to realizing the goals set out in his twin fiscal plans would be welcome were it to land on his desk. That’s not what the GOP wants to hear, of course, but nobody would blame a sitting president for saying he’d sign legislation that enshrines his own priorities into law.
Crucially, finessing the messaging in the fashion detailed above wouldn’t amount to a “new” position from the White House. It would thus be difficult for Republicans to construe it as an impediment to the infrastructure deal. The parties agreed with all sides fully apprised of Biden’s position and Democrats’ determination to bypass the filibuster.
The only thing Biden couldn’t do, is explicitly (where that really just means publicly) tie the fate of the infrastructure proposal to the larger, Democrat-only bill. If he did that, he’d risk undermining the charade, because binding the fate of the narrow deal to the broader legislation effectively just makes them one bill.
So, as the Times wrote in the linked piece (above), Biden could (and was expected to) say something like he in fact did say in prepared remarks delivered shortly after the choreographed press conference on the White House driveway:
I’m going to work closely with Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer to make sure that both move through the legislative process promptly and in tandem. Let me emphasize that — and in tandem.
While the “let me emphasize” part was probably a cringe moment both for Democrats and moderate GOPers, it wasn’t a dealbreaker.
In the same piece, the Times detailed what happened next:
Democrats had expected a statement of that sort. They did not expect what Mr. Biden did moments later.
During the news conference in the East Room, a reporter sought clarification: “Mr. President, you said you want both of these measures to come to you ‘in tandem.’ Did you receive any assurances that that would happen?”
Mr. Biden said he expected that Congress would work on passage of both the bipartisan infrastructure measure and the bigger Democratic bill at the same time, echoing Mr. Schumer’s earlier comments. But then he went even further again.
“But if only one comes to me, I’m not — and if this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it.”
That was a mistake. Why? Well, certainly not because Republicans were somehow blind to a clever legislative ruse. Every Republican, moderate and otherwise, understood Democrats’ clearly-stated intention to go it alone on whatever wasn’t covered by the infrastructure deal. And every Republican understood that, when considered as a pair, the bipartisan infrastructure plan and the Democrat-only reconciliation bill would amount to the White House achieving most (if not all) of its legislative goals.
The problem with Biden’s “I’m not signing it” remark was that it made the implicit explicit. Republicans were effectively stripped of plausible deniability. No longer could moderates say something like: “Well, we just agreed to the infrastructure plan. The other stuff was separate legislation that Democrats crammed through with no GOP support.”
Biden effectively issued a veto threat. Either the infrastructure plan comes to his desk with a bill enshrining the rest of his agenda into law, or it (the infrastructure deal) is DOA. By extension, any Republican who votes for the infrastructure plan is indirectly, circuitously, kinda/sorta, voting for the other “stuff” too.
Republicans immediately balked. Lindsey Graham, for example, resorted to Trump-ish Twitter bombast: “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,” Graham claimed.
That’s nonsense, of course. It didn’t have to be verbally “suggested.” It was implicit. Everyone involved, including and especially Graham, understood it. The problem is that Biden’s “I’m not signing it” gaffe blew up the charade and dynamited Republicans’ PR cover story.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the president. “[I gave] the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to,” he later admitted. “[That was] certainly not my intent.”
The irony is glaring. That Biden has to walk this kind of ridiculous PR tightrope is a testament to the very same dysfunction the bipartisan “deal” purportedly vanquished.
On Sunday, in remarks to ABC’s “This Week,” Rob Portman, one of the lead negotiators for Republicans, said he was “very glad” that Biden “clarified” his positions.
“I’m glad [the two bills] have now been de-linked,” Portman remarked. “It’s very clear that we can go forward with a bipartisan bill that’s broadly popular, not just among members of Congress, but the American people.”
Funny how lawmakers almost instinctually mention what’s important to them first and what’s important to the “American people” second.