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White House seeks to put infrastructure deal back on track after Biden blunder

White House seeks to put infrastructure deal back on track after Biden blunder

The White House was trying to put Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure deal back on track on Saturday, after Republican senators balked at his surprise demand to pair the nearly $1tn plan with an even bigger investment package.

One senior Republican said the president had made him and others look like “fucking idiots” when he said on Thursday he would not sign a bill unless it was accompanied by trillions more in a separate measure covering Democratic priorities and passed with only Democratic votes.

Tensions appeared to have cooled by Saturday, after White House negotiators Steve Ricchetti and Louisa Terrell assured senators Biden remained enthusiastic about the bipartisan deal, for which they said the president would seek to make a forceful public case.

According to a person familiar with calls to lawmakers, Biden’s team portrayed the fallout from his remarks as the back-and-forth of Washington negotiations. Biden plans to pitch the deal in trips around the US and is confident it will become law, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“My hope is that we’ll still get this done,” said Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, the lead Republican negotiator. “It’s really good for America. Our infrastructure is in bad shape. It’s about time to get it done.”

You look like a fucking idiot now. I don’t mind bipartisanship, but I’m not going to do a suicide mission

The sudden swings point to the difficult path ahead in turning Biden’s nearly $4tn infrastructure proposals into law. What had been a celebratory moment for Biden and a group of 10 senators was jolted by Biden’s insistence at a news conference that he would not sign the bill unless Congress also passed his broader package of investments.

The two measures were always expected to move together through Congress: the bipartisan plan needing 60 votes while the a second bill would advance under rules allowing for passage solely with majority Democratic votes.

But Biden then seemed to condition one on the other and some senators felt blindsided.

One, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, told Politico: “If he’s gonna tie them together, he can forget it! I’m not doing that. That’s extortion! I’m not going to do that. The Dems are being told you can’t get your bipartisan work product passed unless you sign on to what the left wants, and I’m not playing that game.”

Graham said “most Republicans” had not known about any linkage strategy.

“There’s no way,” he said. “You look like a fucking idiot now. I don’t mind bipartisanship, but I’m not going to do a suicide mission.”

The White House did not explicitly walk back Biden’s remarks but the latest round of calls and statements sought to allay concerns. In a call to the Democratic negotiator, Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema, Biden said he looked forward to signing both bills, the White House said.

The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said senators should not have been surprised by the two-track strategy.

“That hasn’t been a secret. He hasn’t said it quietly. He hasn’t even whispered it,” she said on Friday. Psaki said Biden plans to stand by the commitment he made to the senators. “And he expects they’ll do the same,” she said.

The two-track strategy seeks to assure liberals the smaller deal won’t be the only one and that the companion package, now containing nearly $6tn in childcare, Medicare and other investments, remains on the table.

The White House wants to show centrist Democrats including Sinema and Joe Manchin of West Virginia it is working with Republicans before trying to push the broader package through Congress.

“There’s a lot of conversations taking place right now as to what the president meant,“ said Senator Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican who noted that Biden may have misspoken and said he hoped “it won’t be as if we crafted something just to give the president a point of leverage to get something that Republicans disagree with”.

Ten Republicans would be needed to pass the bipartisan deal. While the senators in the bipartisan group are among some of the more independent-minded lawmakers, it appears Republican leader Mitch McConnell could peel away support.

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