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Biden stuck relying on transatlantic phone calls to salvage infrastructure priorities

President Joe Biden came to Europe this week in part because he’s grown tired of virtual meetings and telephone calls with world leaders, which he believes can’t capture the essence of a face-to-face relationship.

So, it’s a little ironic that at the very moment his top domestic priority appears on the brink, he will be reduced to phoning members of Congress from across the Atlantic to nudge them into some type of bipartisan agreement on infrastructure.

After several weeks of talks, including multiple meetings in the Oval Office, negotiations on a massive infrastructure plan with a group of Senate Republicans collapsed Tuesday, dealing a blow to Biden’s attempts at bipartisanship. It was the latest sign of struggle for a legislative agenda that is facing serious headwinds. As Congress enters a busy summer stretch before the midterm election season begins in earnest, there is a recognition among officials that the window for major accomplishments is narrowing.

The President spoke Tuesday with Republican and Democratic senators who are working on a parallel plan before departing Washington for eight days abroad.

He’s left behind his chief of staff Ron Klain, who along with White House legislative affairs staff and other senior advisers will help shepherd a new effort to strike a deal that can garner bipartisan support. He directed his advisers to be available for in-person meetings at the Capitol when and if they are requested.

A whole new set of issues arises

Whether that’s even still possible is very much an open question — something White House officials say they’re keenly aware of at this point. It’s far from clear what the new bipartisan group of senators — which includes Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — will be able to accomplish that the other Republican-only group could not.

“If they can find a path forward to get some sort of a bipartisan agreement on infrastructure that is a good thing,” Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said on Wednesday. “My sense is that there is a point in which it gets to be too much for Republicans to support.”

One of the challenges for the bipartisan group is that while those in the middle from the Republican and Democratic Party may be able to find agreement, it won’t necessarily win over many votes on the fringes.

“It’s hard for me to see a scenario where even 10 Republicans would vote for something that gets very far beyond where Shelley’s discussions were with the White House,” said Thune, referring to Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the West Virginia Republican who was leading the talks with Biden that fell apart on Tuesday.

Biden has repeatedly told his top advisers he sees merit to a bipartisan agreement beyond just what it would bring to the nation’s aging and dilapidated infrastructure. But he’s also cognizant, one official said, that while there may be a handful of Republicans who would be willing to bridge the gap that remained between the White House and Capito in their collapsed talks, there’s no sign he could secure the 10 he’d need to pass anything.

“You get a better sense of the Republican conference just by going through this process — it’s a side benefit of things,” said one official, who noted the Biden came away from the talks with a positive view of Capito and hopeful she’d join any future bipartisan effort. “And it’s tough to see how there’s 10 for anything based on where they could or couldn’t go.”

A dual-track process

It’s why Biden has given the green light to what will essentially become a dual-track process, officials said. The bipartisan group will be the focus of negotiations, with a particular focus on the role of Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, another moderate Democrat who has made clear she wants the bipartisan efforts to continue.

But Biden also made clear that it’s time to launch the legislative process that would eventually unlock the ability to pass his agenda through a simple majority vote in the Senate. It’s part carrot and stick, part backup plan and partly an effort to give Manchin and Sinema space from what has been a withering week of attacks from progressives infuriated by opposition to key priorities, an official said.

“Look, I think that what you’re seeing is a process that is unfolding,” said Brian Deese, Biden’s director of the National Economic Council, told Axios at an event Wednesday. “This is a legislative — it’s been a while, so we’re still getting, people are getting accustomed to what the legislative process actually looks and feels like, but we’re continuing to progress. We want to move infrastructure in a bipartisan way, and we’re going to continue to have conversations with a bipartisan group, Democrats and Republicans, in the Senate.”

Biden’s decision to speak to Manchin and Sinema before publicly announcing the end of the talks was intentional — and he made clear to let them know how he planned to proceed on both tracks, even as he encouraged their efforts to seek a deal with Republicans.

“They weren’t surprised by anything,” the official said.

Implicitly, the message Democrats have taken from Biden’s actions is clear: Manchin and Sinema have an opportunity to be key players in the effort to secure an elusive bipartisan deal. Should that fail, however, as many on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue suspect, they will have first-hand experience seeing the limits of bipartisan efforts. That, in turn, could unlock their support to move forward with a Democrat-only effort.

“It’s a process that needs to play out,” one senior Democratic aide said. “Obviously not all of our guys are thrilled by it, but there’s a rationale to how this is moving right now.”

Phone calls home

Biden plans to remain engaged with the senators while he’s in Europe this week, placing phone calls in between a meeting of the Group of 7, a NATO summit in Brussels and a highly anticipated sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The President is in Europe in part to reassure allies of continued US commitment to the transatlantic alliance, and in his telling make the fundamental case for democracy versus autocracy. But part of selling democracy to a skeptical world is showing that it can work; an inability to foster agreements between Republicans and Democrats undercuts his message just as he is preparing to deliver it to leaders shell shocked after four years of President Donald Trump.

At the same time, Biden is coming under intensifying pressure from progressives to abandon his attempts at cultivating agreement with Republicans. At a Senate Democratic lunch on Tuesday, one Democrat after another teed off on the strategy of trying to find consensus with Senate Republicans.

“Let’s face it. It’s time to move forward,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, told CNN on Wednesday as Biden began his efforts with the bipartisan group. “The Republicans have held us up long enough.”

Sensing the agitation on the left, Biden also spoke Tuesday with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York about a pathway that would allow a reconciliation vote requiring only Democrats.

But even there, questions remain about whether all Senate Democrats will come along — and in particular Manchin and Sinema.

He’ll also have to come up with a plan that satisfies the other end of the Democratic spectrum, who have balked at concessions like lowering the overall price tag of the plan and nixing a proposal to raise the corporate tax rate.

“It takes all of us, and nobody is going to get exactly the infrastructure package they wanted,” Warren, a progressive, told CNN. “This isn’t up to just one person. This is up to the 50 of us who now have the majority in the Senate.”

Biden’s team will ramp up engagement with the bipartisan Senate group over the course of this week, with plans for Biden to engage directly while he’s on his foreign trip as well as the cabinet secretaries that make up his “jobs cabinet,” including the secretaries of Commerce, Transportation and Energy. It’s an open question how much time will be in the President’s schedule, given his itinerary, but the West Wing is intent on making clear that Biden wants to be personally involved in conversations.

White House officials viewed the negotiations led by Capito as simply dead in the water, with Biden willing to make far more concessions and look for creative ways to meet GOP demands, specifically on the 2017 tax law, the source said. The administration’s view was that the effort simply wasn’t reciprocated.

A second official said the Biden-Capito call was respectful in tone, but also made clear they were not going to reach an agreement.

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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