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As talks bog down, hopes for bipartisan deals on Biden’s priorities dim

Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), right, walked to the Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Washington on May 19, 2021. Collins said that “negotiations should continue” on a $1.7 trillion infrastructure counterproposal President Biden made on Friday, but her position had not moved: The White House bill was simply too big.
Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), right, walked to the Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Washington on May 19, 2021. Collins said that “negotiations should continue” on a $1.7 trillion infrastructure counterproposal President Biden made on Friday, but her position had not moved: The White House bill was simply too big.STEFANI REYNOLDS/NYT

WASHINGTON — Negotiations in Congress over some of President Joe Biden’s key priorities are facing new headwinds, dimming Democrats’ hopes that they might be able to overcome the partisan gridlock that has come to define Washington and quickly broker deals with Republicans to push through their ambitious agenda.

After congressional Democrats muscled through Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic stimulus bill in March over Republican opposition, lawmakers went back to the negotiating table, opening bipartisan talks on a slew of his legislative priorities, such as infrastructure and policing reform.

While those discussions are continuing, optimism for bipartisan breakthroughs has waned. The Biden administration and Republicans are sparring over the size of his infrastructure bill, remaining in a deadlock on a revived drive to overhaul the nation’s policing system, and lawmakers are waging a partisan fight over an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

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Any sustained impasse — especially on issues as straightforward as the Jan. 6 commission — will almost certainly ratchet up pressure on moderate Senate Democrats who have insisted that their party must work across the aisle to broker bipartisan compromises. But the deadlocks also threaten to eat up more time on the legislative calendar, as the administration presses to notch wins on a packed queue of even thornier political issues, including voting rights and immigration.

The reaction Sunday by one of the Republicans most willing to cross party lines, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, illustrated the depth of the impasse on infrastructure, even after offers and counteroffers on both sides. While she said that “negotiations should continue” on a $1.7 trillion infrastructure counterproposal Biden made Friday, her position had not moved: The White House bill was simply too big.

“I think we’re still pretty far apart, but this is the test. This will determine whether or not we can work together,” Collins said in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” stressing that the combined $4 trillion proposed value of Biden’s infrastructure and economic agenda is “an enormous sum of money.”

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The counteroffer that the Biden administration sent Senate Republicans on Friday cut more than $500 billion off the president’s initial proposal. White House officials hoped the concession would jump-start the talks, but Republicans swiftly rejected it.

“I was glad that the president put a counteroffer on the table, but if you look closely at it, what he’s proposing to do is move a lot of the spending to a bill that’s already on the Senate floor,” Collins said. She was referring to a legislative package meant to bolster the nation’s technological and manufacturing abilities in a bid to outcompete China that might be the Senate’s best chance of passing bipartisan legislation in the coming months.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Sunday that he believed lawmakers had “a week or 10 days to decide” if Republicans and Democrats would be able to cut a deal on infrastructure. He pointed to the vast gulf between the Biden administration and congressional Republicans, who have said that his plan is insufficiently targeted on what they consider traditional infrastructure, such as roads and bridges.

“Our biggest gap is not the money,” Blunt said. “Our biggest gap is defining what infrastructure is, and if we get to a definition of infrastructure that the country would have always accepted, that becomes a much narrower space than it appears to be right now.”

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Biden has said repeatedly that he wants a bipartisan infrastructure deal, and his aides have expressed openness to a compromise with Republicans that could narrow the scope of the president’s ambitions.

Such a deal would leave Democrats to try to pass large swathes of his economic agenda through the fast-track budget reconciliation process, which would not require any Republican votes but would pose another difficult challenge: holding together the progressive and moderate Democrats who form the party’s thin congressional majorities to approve trillions of dollars in spending and tax increases.

But in a letter to Republican senators Friday, White House officials made clear that they expected Republicans to expand their view of what should be included in any infrastructure deal, challenging them to fund spending on home health care for older and disabled Americans and a robust national network of charging stations for electric vehicles, among other areas.

“We remain concerned that your proposal excludes entirely some investments that are key to our competitiveness and have garnered bipartisan support,” the administration officials wrote.

In an optimistic sign, a bipartisan group of senators announced Saturday that they had reached an agreement on a $304 billion transportation bill, a notable breakthrough as lawmakers continue to spar over Biden’s broader infrastructure proposal.

But Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. and the Budget Committee chairman, suggested Sunday that the infrastructure packages would still “probably” have to go through reconciliation with entirely Democratic votes, if Republicans continued to balk at the price tag and scale of Biden’s proposals.

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“We would like bipartisanship, but I don’t think we have a seriousness on the part of the Republican leadership to address the major crises facing this country,” Sanders said. “If they’re not coming forward, we’ve got to go forward alone.”

Negotiations have also stalled on policing reform, with three lawmakers still unable to reach an agreement on how or whether to alter the legal liability shield for individual police officers — known as qualified immunity — to make it easier to bring lawsuits against them for wrongdoing. Disagreement over whether to change that doctrine had doomed attempts to pass policing legislation last summer, amid a national outcry for reform.

Biden had hoped lawmakers would broker a deal before May 25, the anniversary of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer. But a breakthrough has remained elusive despite continued closed-door negotiations between Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., and Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Tim Scott, R-S.C.

“We want to eliminate qualified immunity, and that is where we’re starting,” Booker said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “Clearly, you’ve heard very publicly the red lines on the other side. And again, this is one of the big issues that we’re working very hard to see if we can bridge this wide gulf.”

Prospects to create an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol assault also dimmed last week, as Republican leaders dug in against the commission in an attempt to doom its prospects in the Senate even though one of their own House members negotiated its details with Democrats.

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The Republican leaders of both chambers, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, have opposed the creation of such a panel. McConnell warned that Democrats had partisan motives in moving to set up the commission and would try to use it as a cudgel against Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections.

Several rank-and-file Republican senators who had publicly mulled backing the commission quickly fell in line, adopting the argument that the proposal was not truly bipartisan and that the investigation would take too long, underscoring a difficult path for Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold required for passage of the bill in the evenly divided Senate.

Collins indicated Sunday that she supported the effort to create the commission, but she wanted to see changes to the bill passed last week in the House — giving Republicans an equal say in the commission’s staff appointments and setting a deadline for it to conclude at the end of the year.

“I see no reason why the report cannot be completed by the end of this year,” Collins said. “I’m optimistic that we can get past these issues, based on recent conversations I’ve had with the speaker of the House and the House majority leader.”