On Infrastructure, Biden Tests the Limits of Having It Both Ways

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The president has long pitched himself as both solidly progressive and committed to bipartisanship. His deal with Republicans, coupled with assurances to liberals, attempts to marry the two.

The infrastructure deal that President Biden and moderate senators from both parties cut on Thursday is the prelude to a much more expensive fight.
Credit...Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Jim Tankersley

June 25, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure agreement contains all of the contradictions and promises of the Biden brand. It is a deal that dramatically curbs Democrats’ policy goals in the pursuit of bipartisanship, but also opens a portal to what could be the most ambitious expansion of government into the economy in decades.

It is an attempt for the president to have it both ways — compromising with Republicans in pursuit of a bold and progressive agenda — just as he promised Democratic voters he would during the 2020 primary campaign. He has negotiated a deal that satisfies moderates, while promising liberals that the agreement will not become law unless his party’s moderates also supply votes for a far more expensive companion plan.

At its core, it is a risk. Mr. Biden’s two-track strategy could easily collapse before any infrastructure bills get to his desk, leaving him empty-handed on his top domestic priority.

But White House officials also believe it was the only route for the president to secure trillions of dollars in new spending to fight climate change, increase worker pay, expand education and carry out scores of other initiatives — and that Mr. Biden is now better positioned than ever to achieve that goal.

Mr. Biden aspires to go down in history as a transformational president akin to Franklin D. Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson, on the wings of a wholesale reimagining of the federal role in the economy. He wants to guarantee four additional years of public education for students across the country, to speed a transition to low-emission energy, to provide paid leave for workers, to send ongoing checks to families in an effort to halve child poverty and to strengthen care for children, older Americans and the disabled to help ease the strain on working women. He would pile new taxes on high earners and the rich, reversing decades of attempts to stimulate the economy from the top down.

But Mr. Biden does not enjoy the large congressional majorities that Mr. Johnson and Mr. Roosevelt had. That hinders his ability to push sweeping legislation with only the backing of his party. It also emboldens his natural craving as a decades-long member of the Senate to reach across the aisle and seek compromise.

Former President Barack Obama, under whom Mr. Biden served as vice president, tried to walk a similar tightrope. Mr. Obama had campaigned on uniting the country, and he attempted to build large bipartisan coalitions to expand health care and jolt the economy out of the recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis. He ended up with bills that disappointed many progressives and failed to attract much support from Republicans.

Mr. Biden’s majorities are significantly thinner than Mr. Obama’s, and the left flank of his party in Congress is larger, louder and more liberal. Senate centrists like Joe Manchin III of West Virginia have pushed him toward compromise for months. Progressives in both chambers have pushed the president to go even further than he has proposed to reduce carbon emissions, fight poverty and expand access to health care.

Early in his term, Mr. Biden sided with the progressives, pressuring centrists to quickly fall in line behind a $1.9 trillion economic aid bill for the coronavirus pandemic. This time, he indulged the moderates first and foremost.

His agreement with Senate centrists, including at least five Republicans, includes just under $600 billion in new federal spending, focused on physical infrastructure like highways and broadband. In the pursuit of enough Republican votes to clear a Senate filibuster, the deal excludes all the president’s proposals to more heavily tax corporations and the rich, much of his push to curb climate change and all his proposed investments in the “human infrastructure” of education, paid leave and child and elder care.

“Neither side got everything they wanted in this deal, and that’s what it means to compromise,” Mr. Biden told reporters in the East Room. “And it reflects something important: It reflects consensus. The heart of democracy requires consensus.”

That consensus represents a small slice of Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion economic agenda, and liberals were quick to call it insufficient. That is why Mr. Biden also said on Thursday that he would not sign the bipartisan agreement unless it was accompanied by a second bill, probably passed with only Democratic votes and funded by some tax increases on corporations and high earners, that would spend heavily on the parts of his agenda that were cut out of the deal at the insistence of Republicans.

“If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it,” Mr. Biden said, just moments after extolling the virtues of consensus. “It’s in tandem.”

Congressional leaders echoed him. “All parties understand, we won’t get enough votes to pass either unless we have enough votes to pass both,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said on the Senate floor. “The bottom line is both tracks need to make progress concurrently.”

Top Republicans were quick to denounce the two-step. “That’s not the way to show you’re serious about getting a bipartisan outcome,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said on Thursday. “So I hope our colleagues can recover and get their good-faith efforts back on track.”

White House officials, though, say the president made clear to Republicans throughout the negotiations that he was pursuing both a bipartisan deal and a second bill to pass only with Democratic votes through a process known as budget reconciliation. They do not expect Republicans to walk away from the agreement struck this week.

Some Republicans remain hopeful that Mr. Biden will ultimately end up signing only the bipartisan deal into law, and that Democrats will be unable to find consensus on the details of the spending and tax provisions in a partisan bill. That is the bet many business lobbyists have made in urging Republicans to engage in talks in hopes of warding off the business tax increases that would most likely be included in a more expensive infrastructure plan that Democrats would do on their own.

If Republicans were to scuttle the deal, accusing Democrats of bad faith, Mr. Biden would be left to shoehorn his entire agenda into a partisan bill. The odds would rise of centrists and progressives failing to find agreement. Mr. Biden’s brand of bipartisanship could take a hit in the eyes of voters.

But now that a deal has been announced, administration officials say, the reverse could be true. Republican defections could anger the Democratic centrists, making them more amenable to a partisan bill. Even Republicans’ immediate endorsement of the bipartisan framework, which includes tax increases on polluting companies and more money for the I.R.S., could shift the policy conversation in Washington in Democrats’ direction.

In other words, Mr. Biden has now achieved the appearance of bipartisanship, whether it ultimately endures or not. And that appearance, by itself, could give him the political fuel he needs to push a far more aggressive plan into law.

It is not a typical political calculation. But it is a distinctly Biden one.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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