President Joe Biden hosted the top four congressional leaders at the White House Wednesday for a meeting on infrastructure that yielded little progress and showed just how far apart the two sides remain, with Republicans insisting that they won’t support tax increases to pay for new spending.
Wednesday’s meeting was Biden’s first as president with the “Big Four” congressional leaders: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California on the Republican side and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California for the Democrats. Vice President Kamala Harris also attended the Oval Office meeting.
Following the talks, McConnell told reporters that there is “a bipartisan desire to get an outcome” on infrastructure but that the two sides had yet to even agree on the definition of infrastructure. Republicans have objected to Biden’s use of the term for a broader range of programs, such as those related to home health care and an expansion of electric vehicle charging stations. “We first have to start with a definition of what is infrastructure,” McCarthy said. “That’s not home health. That’s roads, bridges, highways, airports, broadband.”
Biden has proposed more than $4 trillion in spending across two packages, one focused on infrastructure, including transportation, water projects and broadband internet expansion and the other centered on education and caregivers, including an expanded child tax credit and paid family leave, free community college and universal prekindergarten.
Republicans have countered Biden’s infrastructure plan, which would spend nearly $2.3 trillion over eight years, with a five-year, $568 billion plan more focused on physical infrastructure such as roads and bridges. McConnell has said that a package costing between $600 billion and $800 billion would be acceptable to his party. And while Biden has proposed tax increases on corporations and the wealthy, Republicans have suggested lawmakers should look to user fees to cover infrastructure spending.
Republicans draw a red line on taxes: McConnell and McCarthy said they had made clear to Biden that they oppose revisiting the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts and won’t support tax hikes to pay for an infrastructure plan. “We’re not interested in re-opening the 2017 tax bill. We both made that clear with the president. That’s our red line,” McConnell said. McCarthy added that raising taxes would be “the worst thing you can do in this economy," citing rising gasoline prices.
The New York Times reports that McCarthy sent a campaign text to supporters shortly after the meeting that said, “I just met with Corrupt Joe Biden and he’s STILL planning to push his radical Socialist agenda onto the American people.”
Biden says he’s ‘encouraged’: Despite the lingering differences, the White House called the meeting “productive” and said the leaders “agreed there was a need for investment.”
“I’m encouraged that there is room to have a compromise on a bipartisan bill that’s solid and significant,” Biden later told reporters.
In a statement, Pelosi called the meeting “a good early step.” She told reporters that she felt “more optimistic” that lawmakers would be able to address infrastructure in a bipartisan way. "We have a different set of values. But what we did agree in the meeting is: Let's agree on what we're trying to achieve. And then we can talk about how we pay for it. Let's not lead with a disagreement. We'll find a way because the public knows that this is necessary," Pelosi told reporters.
Between the lines: Liberal Washington Post columnists Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent suggest that for all the talk of bipartisanship and dealmaking, the White House strategy may be targeted at another endgame:
“The best way to understand these discussions with Republicans is that they’re really about someone who isn’t in the room: Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.), the 50th Senate vote for any Democratic bill and the person who needs to be convinced to give Biden the victory he’s after.
“Above all, Manchin must be able to say that a serious effort to win over Republicans was made, both by the White House and by Senate Democrats. Then it will be easier for him to agree to pass the final package by the simple-majority reconciliation process. …
“The only way Manchin will be part of a purely party-line vote for infrastructure is at the end of an extended process in which Biden makes repeated attempts to bring Republicans in, attempts that are clearly rejected by McConnell.”
The bottom line: Democrats have made clear that, while they’ll give Biden room to reach out to Republicans, they aren’t going to wait long to see if a bipartisan deal is possible and are already preparing to move ahead without GOP support — though that would likely still prove challenging.
Biden is scheduled to meet with six senators who serve as the ranking members on committees related to infrastructure on Thursday.