President Joe Biden used a brief handshake moment below Air Force One this week to pitch his infrastructure plan to two Republican senators.
An airport tarmac in New Orleans wasn’t the best place to hold a full debate on his $2.3 trillion plan, which Republicans have unanimously rejected. But, as they walked away, neither Biden nor his Republican greeters believed anything was off the table.
According to people familiar with the situation, the impromptu meeting took place as Biden prepares to enter what he sees as a critical stretch for testing the bounds of bipartisanship. Though he recently admitted that he no longer “understands” Republicans, Biden will have plenty of opportunities to try to figure them out in the coming days.
He plans to meet with West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and a group of Republicans of her choosing on Thursday to discuss a roughly $600 billion counterproposal to his infrastructure plan. And on Wednesday, Biden will meet with the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate to see how much cooperation they can muster in order to advance his agenda.
Biden hopes to learn how serious Republicans are about passing a bipartisan infrastructure package, which he is now signaling may be smaller than he originally proposed, during the meetings. This week, Biden stated publicly for the first time that he would be willing to lower the corporate tax rate to 25%, down from the 28 per cent he initially proposed.
According to aides and White House officials, he and his Democratic Senate allies intend to use the next two weeks to make a sustained push for an agreement on a scaled-back plan. Some officials have set an unofficial deadline for Memorial Day to assess how far the country has come.
However, the President’s assessment of the opposing party as rudderless and unrecognizable from the one he thought he knew looms over the talks. Whether Republicans’ internal divisions and growing loyalty to Biden’s predecessor prove a barrier to cooperation remains an open question for a President and the White House eager to demonstrate their ability to work across the aisle.
A coincidence of timing only emphasizes the conflicting GOP impulses that Biden is now confronted with. On the same day he meets with congressional leaders at the White House, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, Republican lawmakers will convene in a conference meeting where they appear poised to depose Rep. Liz Cheney, the House’s No. 3 Republican.
This is the development that prompted Biden to admit this week that he knows little about today’s Republican Party. As he seeks even a small number of Republican votes on a potential infrastructure compromise, he admits he is still coming to terms with a party he claims has changed him.
“It seems as though the Republican Party is trying to identify what it stands for,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “And they’re in the midst of a significant, sort of, mini-revolution.”
Already, Biden has expressed more concern about the GOP’s state than almost anyone else. Rather than revelling in the internal schisms that appear to be costing Cheney her position as president, Biden has expressed concern about what happened to the party he spent decades working within the Senate and later as vice president.
The raging debate over former President Donald Trump’s future role in Republican politics appears to provide Biden with an opportunity to advance his agenda without much opposition from a distracted and divided GOP.
Many sceptical Democrats believe it’s a waste of time to try to reach out to Republicans at all, arguing that it yielded little fruit during former President Barack Obama’s tenure.
Their case received a boost this week when McConnell said to constituents in Kentucky, “100% of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” echoing his 2010 comment that his most important task was to make Obama a “one-term president.”
For the rest of Obama’s presidency, his aides cited that remark as evidence of McConnell’s unwillingness to collaborate on anything substantive, even when people like then-Vice President Biden pushed for bipartisanship on issues like health care and gun control.
The latest version of McConnell’s pledge initially alarmed Biden’s aides. “That’s a very unsettling thing for me to hear,” Jared Bernstein, one of Biden’s senior economic advisers, said on Thursday.
Biden, on the other hand, appeared to dismiss McConnell’s remark.
“He said that in our last administration with Barack, he was going to stop everything,” Biden said. “And I was able to get a lot done with him.”
On Friday, press secretary Jen Psaki suggested that McConnell’s rhetoric was not overburdening the President.
“The President’s view is that he’s ready to have a clean slate,” she said, adding later: “Inevitably there will be some strong disagreements with Republicans, and we know that. He was in the Senate for 36 years. He’s certainly no stranger to that.”
Nonetheless, the party with which Biden spent more than three decades wrangling in the Senate is, by his own admission, no longer the Republican Party of today. Throughout his early presidency, Biden has openly questioned whether the Republican Party will even exist four years from now. The deal-making skills he honed as a senator, which he promised to use as president, are inevitably complicated when the opposing party rallies around the false notion that he did not fairly win the election.
Sen. John Kennedy, one of the senators he met within Louisiana on Thursday, was among the eight Republican senators who objected to the certification of election results on January 6.
Aides say the President is still hopeful of achieving a bipartisan goal before next year’s midterm elections, despite Democratic colleagues’ scepticism. According to two people with knowledge of the conversations, Biden has made it clear in private conversations with Democrats that he believes there is a path to agreement as well as overall value for the country in attempting to reach a bipartisan conclusion.
“We badly need a Republican Party. We need a two-party system. It’s not healthy to have a one-party system,” Biden said this week. “And I think the Republicans are further away from trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for than I thought they would be at this point.”
The bipartisan infrastructure push is still in its infancy. White House officials have met with moderate lawmakers and their staffs, and members of Biden’s Cabinet, most notably Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, have called members of Congress to identify areas of cooperation.
Far from avoiding the Democratic president’s spotlight, many Republicans, including the two senators who met him in Louisiana, appear eager to at least put on a show of bipartisanship. Before delivering his speech in front of a dilapidated bridge in Lake Charles, Biden was introduced by the city’s Republican mayor, Nic Hunter, a message of local Republican support for his plan that the White House hopes to convey back to Washington.
Afterwards, Hunter expressed a view of bipartisanship that would be hard to find in a Congress increasingly based on party and personality allegiances.
“I certainly care what’s in the bill. But ultimately, I think that’s why people need to sit down and have conversations with each other. It’s so disappointing that I see some of my colleagues who want to demonize and grab headlines more than even sit down and have a conversation and I don’t understand that,” he said in an interview on CNN.
“What’s upsetting is that there’s not even conversation,” he added. “There’s not diplomacy anymore. It’s just simply throwing stones and staying on your side of the line that’s drawn in the sand and you won’t even cross a toe over.”