Earlier today, President Biden met with a group of GOP lawmakers of both chambers of Congress (House and Senate) at a bipartisan meeting, discussing the possibilities to reach a bipartisan agreement in the $2.3 Trillion Infrastructure Bill the administration has unveiled and plans to pass through Congress over the following months.
The meeting, which was held at the Oval Office, was attended by members of -among others- the Senate Commerce Committee, the House Appropriations Committee, and the House Transportation and Information Committee. According to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, the President and the lawmakers had a “good exchange of ideas” with Biden asking them for follow up ideas or feedback, while also remembering them that “inaction is not an option”.
Unlike February, when Biden met with notorious GOP lawmakers to discuss the possibilities of a bipartisan COVID relief plan, the members of congress invited to this meeting were not as well known. The GOP legislators who attended the reunion were Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE), Rep. Don Young (AK), and Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA).
The Biden White House has recently made some calls for bipartisanship and cooperation for their massive infrastructure bill, with the President saying he is willing to negotiate the scope and size of his gargantuan bill with Republican lawmakers. The meeting with the small group of bipartisan legislators is just another part of that apparent push.
However, the questions remain the same: Will these attempts at bipartisanship be productive? Are they even sincere?
While there is no way we can answer the last question, only Biden’s team knows the answer to it, we surely can analyze the current political atmosphere to determine if the White House has enough political incentives/necessity to slim down one of the flagship bills of his administration, share its credit with some Republicans, and risk the ire of his progressive base for compromising with the dreaded GOP.
A Bipartisan law sounds perfect on paper since it would be approved by members of both parties it is more likely to withstand a change in the balance of power in Washington D.C., it helps cement the image of Biden as a dealmaker capable of going beyond petty partisanship, and it should begin rebuilding some trust between decision-makers between both parties. Biden could use the agreed deal as proof to the electorate that he was right, he was able to heal the nation.
However, reality might be far more complicated than that, the same things that make a bipartisan law great also bring significant electoral disadvantages. Since the law would be approved by both parties, neither side could fully take credit/assign blame for the consequences of the law, making it a bland weapon to use during the midterm campaign of 2022.
For example, the 2020 COVID relief bill approved in March was bipartisan, meaning that neither Democrats nor Trump was able to completely take credit for the success and popularity of the Bill. In fact, Americans disapproved of Trump’s handling of the Pandemic even after the bill was passed, even if there was widespread approval of the relief bill.
A compromise bill would certainly be still detested by the most activists on either side, with Democrats saying the bill was watered down and Republicans complaining their party didn’t stand up against the Democrats’ agenda.
If Biden had the ability to easily pass his enormous infrastructure bill without the need to cajole GOP lawmakers by limiting the size of the legislation, he most certainly would do it. After all, that is exactly what happened with his COVID relief package, which was approved without a single Republican vote.
Is Biden able to pull that feat two times in a row? Initially, the congressional arithmetic and the recent ruling of the Senate Parliamentarian allowing the use of the reconciliation process for Biden’s infrastructure bill (bypassing the threat of filibuster) would certainly point in the direction that he can: he has both the numbers and a viable legislative path.
Manchin is threatening the swift passage of a partisan Democratic Infrastructure Bill
However, Democrats are finding themselves with an obstacle that is becoming a signature of 2021: Joe Manchin. Yes, the Democratic Senator from West Virginia has shown (again) his disapproval of how his party is handling things at Capitol Hill, with him saying in an op-ed published at The Washington Post that he doesn’t believe the budget reconciliation process “should replace regular order in the Senate” and that he was “alarmed” at the way the mechanism was being used recently.
The Senator then made another call for both his Democratic and Republican colleagues to leave aside the temptation of passing sweeping bills without consultation or being intransigent with the other side and find a common understanding that would produce a bill that could survive any change of government.
The thinly-veiled warning of this op-ed is that the Senator would oppose the use of reconciliation to pass Biden’s infrastructure bill. If Manchin makes good on his promise, then the numbers for a partisan infrastructure bill would simply fall apart, the calculation being that this would force Biden to negotiate with Republicans in order to get his dreamed legislative victory.
Although a bipartisan bill might not be a political triumph that could be repeatedly used in the campaign trail, a legislative defeat might be even worst for the White House. Which is why the incentives for Biden trying to find common ground with the GOP would depend entirely on the sincerity of Manchin’s warning, when push comes to shove would Manchin be willing to take the political fire and single-handedly bury one of the most significant bills of his president?
If the answer is no, then Biden would likely make some bipartisanship gestures to show the American Public that he tried, but still, push for a party-line vote in Congress and get his bill approved regardless of what the GOP thinks, while also taking away some of Manchin’s veto power he is currently enjoying.
However, if Manchin is willing to shut down the entire bill the calculation changes drastically, Biden then would either have to make significant concessions on the bill (angering his base in the process) to bring at least 10 Republicans to his side or accept defeat and move on away from infrastructure.
Either way, Manchin has the power to either give or deny Biden a second legislative triumph. How will he use it? That is probably one of the most popular questions in Capitol Hill, but only one person knows the answer.