President Joe Biden is pursuing "multiple paths forward" on infrastructure, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday. That means a lot of congressional Democrats meeting with a lot of Republicans against the backdrop of Sen. Mitch McConnell's poisoning the process. At the same time, rank-and-file Democrats are raising alarms about how much their "moderate" colleagues are giving away.
Those multiple paths include an offer from the House "problem solvers," a bipartisan group of 29 Democrats and 29 Republicans—enough to deny either side a majority—with a $1.25 trillion package with $761.8 billion in new spending that thus far does not include how to pay for it. It also includes the bipartisan Senate group of about eight senators headed up Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Rob Portman, who will then present any package they come up with to a larger group of 20. It also includes leadership preparing for a budget reconciliation bill that won't require any Republican votes with Biden's blessing.
It's a bit of a high-wire act—getting enough stuff Republicans want into compromise packages that can pass through regular order even as a budget reconciliation is moving forward on a separate track, while appeasing Democrats Joe Manchin and Sinema on bipartisan bullshit. All the while, everyone is proceeding as if there are 10 Senate Republicans who would be willing to buck McConnell. At the same time, though, there's the very real danger that all this negotiating is shrinking Biden's vision into something that just won't do the job at hand.
The Sinema-Portman group has been working for a while, parallel to negotiations Biden was having with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito as guided by McConnell. In those negotiations, Biden gave more than half the original $2.2+ trillion package away, down to a final $1 trillion offer before calling the negotiations off. It would be nice to think that the collapse of those negotiations meant Biden was resetting the counter back to $2.25 trillion, but that's probably too much to expect.
This exercise is being viewed with a mix of ambivalence and frustration among Senate Democrats. Sen. Angus King, the Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats calls the effort “a good test. Because this is not deep policy. It's not particularly partisan. […] If we can’t make it on this, it’s a bad sign." Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, is a realist: "McConnell wants Biden to fail," he points out. "There aren't even 10 Republicans who are even willing to talk to us about compromise. And if we get 10 Republicans you probably lose some Democrats if it's too squishy, middle-of-the-road minimalist."
Case in point: Sen. Susan Collins, who is always put forward as a reasonable Republican and who always comes home to McConnell when it really makes a difference. She's putting all the onus on Biden. "The bigger question is, can the White House accept a more reasonable bill that is focused just on infrastructure and broadband and acceptable pay-fors?" Collins asked. That plays into the narrative Capito is pushing that it was Biden who kept pulling the rug out from under her. "I'm really not participating in the other group," she told Politico. “They're working their own tracks. I wish them luck. Just gotta make sure what the president tells you is what matches the reality of what they really want." Again, Biden came down by more than 50% in his offers, Capito came up by just 5%, and still refused to consider any means of paying for it that didn't include raising user fees or stealing from COVID-19 relief funds.
A growing group of Senate Democrats is getting pretty restive about this erosion, particularly following the statement from Biden's National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy that the administration might drop climate goals from the infrastructure package. In a tweet thread Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said, "OK, I’m now officially very anxious about climate legislation. I’ll admit I’m sensitive from the Obama climate abandonment, but I sense trouble." He's not alone.
And it’s not just the liberal wing.
One way or another, the McConnell tactic of delay, delay, delay is nearing its end. One of the members of Sinema’s group, Montana Democrat Jon Tester, has a short time frame. He wants to see the basis of a deal by the end of Thursday: “If we don’t get a deal pretty damn quick,” he says, “we ain’t gonna have a deal.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, also not a rabble rouser, is ready to go as well. “I have no confidence that this bipartisan group will reach a deal. They should have a limited time to do so. I really think it’s time to pull the plug now and take action promptly and robustly. [...] We simply do not have the time to waste.”
Schumer’s No. 2, Democratic whip Dick Durbin, agrees, saying the Sinema group has “hours, not days” to get the job done. He also says he doesn’t know what the vote count on reconciliation would be since he hasn’t whipped it. It’s about damned well time he does.