WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden declared on Thursday that “we have a deal,” announcing a bipartisan agreement on a $953 billion infrastructure plan that would achieve his top legislative priority and validate his efforts to reach across the political aisle.
Biden made a surprise appearance in front of the cameras with members of a group of senators, Republicans and Democrats, after an agreement was reached at the White House. Details of the deal were scarce to start, but the pared-down plan, with $559 billion in new spending, has rare bipartisan backing and could open the door to the president’s more sweeping $4 trillion proposals later on.
“This reminds me of the days when we used to get an awful lot done up in the United States Congress,” said Biden, a former Delaware senator, putting his hand on the shoulder of a stoic-looking Republican Sen. Rob Portman.
The president said not everyone got what they wanted and that other White House priorities would be tackled separately in a congressional budget process known as reconciliation.
“We’ve struck a deal,” Biden then tweeted. “A group of senators – five Democrats and five Republicans – has come together and forged an infrastructure agreement that will create millions of American jobs.”
The deal was struck amid months of partisan rancor that has consumed Washington, yet Biden has insisted that something could be done despite skepticism from many in his own party. Led by Republican Portman of Ohio and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the group includes some of the more independent lawmakers in the Senate, some known for bucking their parties.
“You know there are many who say bipartisanship is dead in Washington,” said Sinema, “We can use bipartisanship to solve these challenges.”
And Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said, “It sends an important message to the world as well that America can function, can get things done.”
The senators have struggled over how to pay for the new spending but left for the White House with a sense of confidence that funding issues had been addressed. The senators from both parties stressed that the deal will create jobs for the economy, a belief that clearly transcended the partisan interests and created a framework for the deal.
“We’re going to keep working together—we’re not finished,” Sen. Mitt Romney said. “But America works, the Senate works.”
For Biden, the deal was a welcome result.
Though for far less than the approximately $2 trillion he originally sought, which may raise some ire on the left, Biden had bet his political capital that he could work with Republicans and showcase that democracy could still work as a counter-example to rising autocracies across the globe.
Moreover, Biden and his aides believed that they needed a bipartisan deal on infrastructure to create a permission structure for more moderate Democrats — including Sinema and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — to then be willing to go for a party-line vote for the rest of the president’s agenda.
Biden’s top aides had met with senators for back-to-back meetings on Capitol Hill and later huddled with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
The agreement comes with a complex legislative push. Pelosi on Thursday warned that it must be paired with the president’s bigger goals now being prepared by Congress under a process that could push them through the Senate with only Democratic votes.
“This is important,” Pelosi said. “There ain’t going to be a bipartisan bill without a reconciliation bill,”
The Democratic leader vowed the House would not vote until the Senate had dealt with both packages.
The major hurdle for a bipartisan agreement has been financing. Biden demanded no new taxes on anyone making less than $400,000, while Republican lawmakers were unwilling to raise taxes beyond such steps as indexing the gasoline tax to inflation. But senators departed for the White House Thursday with a sense of confidence that funding issues had been addressed.
One member of the bipartisan group, Republican Rob Portman of Ohio, had met privately ahead of the White House meeting with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol and said afterward that the Kentucky senator “remains open-minded and he’s listening still.”
The announcement leaves unclear the fate of Biden’s promises of massive investment to slow climate change, which Biden this spring called “the existential crisis of our times.”
Biden’s presidential campaign had helped win progressive backing with pledges of massive spending on electric vehicles, charging stations, and research and funding for overhauling the U.S. economy to run on less oil and gas. The administration is expected to push for some of that in future legislation.
But Sen. Cassidy, R-La, stressed that there are billions of dollars for resiliency against extreme weather and the impacts of climate change and deemed Thursday’s deal a “beginning investment.”
Biden has sought $1.7 trillion in his American Jobs Plan, part of nearly $4 trillion in broad infrastructure spending on roads, bridges and broadband internet but also including the so-called care economy of child care centers, hospitals and elder care.
With Republicans opposed to Biden’s proposed corporate tax rate increase, from 21% to 28%, the group has looked at other ways to raise revenue. Biden rejected their idea to allow gas taxes paid at the pump to rise with inflation, viewing it as a financial burden on American drivers.
The broad reconciliation bill would likely include tax increases on the wealthy and corporations, so a tension still exists over funding for some Republicans and business groups. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce came out Thursday applauding the bipartisan infrastructure agreement, but Neil Bradley, its executive vice president, warned that “some in Congress are trying to torpedo the deal” unless they get trillions in additional spending.
“These are the kind of tactics that have created the mess we are in today, and they must be rejected,” Bradley said.
According to a White House readout of the Wednesday meeting with Schumer and Pelosi, the leaders talked with acting Budget Director Shalanda Young, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice, and they discussed the two-track approach — the smaller bipartisan deal now emerging and the more sweeping plan of Democratic priorities.
Schumer said the leaders “support the concepts” they have heard from the bipartisan negotiations.
The Democratic leaders also insisted on the two-part process ahead, starting with initial votes in July to consider the bipartisan deal and to launch the lengthy procedure for the Democrats’ proposal, now drafted at nearly $6 trillion.
The Democrats’ bigger proposal would run through the budget reconciliation process, which would allow passage of Biden’s priorities by majority vote, without the need for support from Republicans to overcome the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. It would require multiple rounds of voting that are likely to extend into fall.
Like Pelosi, Schumer said, “One can’t be done without the other.”
That’s a signal to both parties of the road ahead. Liberal Democrats have been wary of the bipartisan effort because they see it as insufficient and worry it will take the place of Biden’s bigger plan. Republicans are also skeptical of passing a bipartisan bill only to be faced with an even bigger Democratic plan.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed reporting.