A raft of influential progressive and environmental groups has a message for the Biden White House on its efforts to cut an infrastructure deal with Republicans: Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
They are sounding the alarms that compromising with Republicans on a scaled-down infrastructure bill — and spending the time that such a deal might require — could make it increasingly difficult to pass the rest of Biden’s sweeping agenda.
“It’s a risky strategy,” John Podesta, the founder of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, told POLITICO.
Podesta, the measured former counselor to President Barack Obama whose words carry weight among Democrats, is among more than a dozen liberal leaders and groups who signed a letter urging the White House and congressional leaders to act quickly on his massive $4 trillion infrastructure proposal, casting it as a once-in-a-lifetime moment that Democrats should seize on now.
Biden’s proposal encompasses a broad spectrum of ambitious initiatives, from fixing roads and bridges to investing in clean energy projects and expanding early education. Republicans have made clear they would not consider initiatives that are not so-called “hard” infrastructure, like roads, bridges and tunnels, and they’re only willing to spend significantly less.
“Those who argue for small-minded measures are on the wrong side of history,” Podesta and the others write in the letter, delivered to the White House and Democratic House and Senate leaders on Thursday and shared first with POLITICO. Other signatories include the Service Employees International Union, Environmental Defense Fund and Working Families Party. They’re urging Congress to use a parliamentary procedure known as budget reconciliation, which only requires 50 votes, avoiding a Republican filibuster.
While Podesta said he and the letter’s other authors recognize the president’s negotiations with Republicans are likely needed to secure enough Democratic support for the plans in the end, they want to see more of a sense of urgency from the White House.
“They are smart people, and they’ve been successful and effective, so I respect that,” Podesta said of Biden’s advisers. “But [talking] only works for so long. The clock is ticking. Would we rather just do one big package for reconciliation? You bet.”
The pressure from progressives underscores the diverging coalition the White House must contend with if it is to move Biden’s ambitious infrastructure proposal over the goal line. Even as the left is now urging Biden to retreat from bipartisan talks, a group of moderate Democrats has pushed the White House to attempt a bipartisan deal. Two of them — Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — have said they wouldn’t sign onto any package until the White House exhausted its attempts at bipartisanship. With an evenly divided Senate, the White House needs to keep every Democrat on board. At the same time, there’s a benefit to the White House if progressives exert public pressure: It allows Biden to point to each of the warring factions to underscore the need for the kind of compromise he’s offering.
The White House is negotiating with Republicans on a package that would include funding for only hard infrastructure projects, and a second, partisan bill that would invest in things like clean energy infrastructure, education and housing. On Wednesday, Biden met with congressional leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, both of whom rejected the inclusion of tax increases in the package.
Biden has proposed raising the corporate tax rate to help pay for infrastructure projects; however, sources with knowledge of his strategy say the White House has no expectation that the hike would be part of any deal with Republicans, should there be one. Today, Biden will meet with a group of Republicans led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), the chief negotiator on the GOP side — someone whom Democrats have said is sincerely attempting a compromise.
Still, progressives are suspicious of Republicans’ motives and worry the White House is wasting precious time and political momentum. Evan Weber, political director for the Sunrise Movement, said McConnell’s recent comments that he’d block Biden’s agenda was all he needed to hear.
“We don’t think there’s time to sit around and wait to see if they’re going to cooperate. They made it very clear,” he said. “They are literally telling us what they want: They want to obstruct.”
Weber added that with the 2022 midterms around the corner, Congress is going to have less of an incentive to do “anything really productive.”
Peggy Shepard, co-founder and Executive Director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said she feared that if the White House reached an infrastructure-only bill with Republicans, it would leave less incentive for moderates like Manchin to then also sign onto a more expensive, Democrat-only bill that Republicans are sure to cast as part of a “socialist agenda.” A source with knowledge of the White House strategy said if the package is broken into two bills, there would be incentives for Manchin and Sinema to support both.
“I understand the administration, they want the support of all congressional representatives. We all do. But we cannot let trying to get that support scuttle the most important aspect of what needs to be done,” Shepard said. “Bifurcating those needs into two different buckets is not the preferable solution. We then have to assure that there’s support for two bills, not just one … as advocates we have a perspective that we need this legislation right now, we need this in one bill and we need it to be big.”
In the interviews, the coalition of progressives returned repeatedly to the White House’s ambitious climate targets, including reaching net zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. If officials fail to secure meaningful reductions in the transportation package, “All of that is at risk. And then the whole diplomatic strategy of that was built around the [upcoming climate] summit is at risk,” Podesta said.
“If nothing’s happened when [climate envoy] John Kerry gets to Glasgow — that’s not a good scenario.”
The White House, for its part, has sought to highlight that its only red lines are “inaction” and increasing taxes on those making less than $400,000 a year. And White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated this week that they want to see progress by Memorial Day, which is May 31.
“The President is committed to investing in our middle class and our infrastructure, and is working with both parties — reaching across the aisle in good faith — to negotiate about achieving that,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said. “He has also been emphatic that inaction and raising taxes on Americans earning under $400,000 are red lines, and that he wants to see progress by Memorial Day.”
Some doubt Senate Republican leaders will have much of an appetite to compromise and say even if the GOP comes on board for a more modest transportation bill, they will try to make life difficult for Biden and Democrats as they try to pass a long list of other, partisan priorities.
“History has shown that when one piece is done, the Republican Party — at least under Mitch McConnell’s leadership — has moved to an obstructionist position in the government,” said Jimmy Williams Jr. of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. “And I think we would hate to see history repeat itself.”
“It would be a missed opportunity. And it would be a wasted opportunity.”
He compared the situation to Obama’s first term, when Republicans dragged out negotiations of the Affordable Care Act for months, only to oppose it en masse in the Senate.
Instead, Williams and others believe Biden stands a better chance of passing a greater number of his proposals by negotiating with Democratic moderates in the Senate from the onset — leaning into the argument that the GOP isn’t serious — and pursuing the single bill. “I don’t think you start from a position of weakness,” Williams said. “I think you have to start from a position of strength.”