The White House scrambled 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 covering progressive policy priorities, a demand the president made on Thursday even while hailing the deal.
In a statement, Biden said he had “created the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to, which was certainly not my intent”.
Biden said on Thursday he would not sign a bill arising from the infrastructure deal unless it was accompanied by trillions more in spending in a separate measure passed with only Democratic votes.
One senior Republican said the president had therefore made him and others look like “fucking idiots”.
Tensions appeared to have cooled by Saturday, after White House negotiators Steve Ricchetti and Louisa Terrell assured senators Biden remained enthusiastic about the deal and would seek to make a forceful public case for it in trips around the US.
In his statement, late on Saturday afternoon, Biden said: “To be clear, our bipartisan agreement does not preclude Republicans from attempting to defeat my Families Plan. Likewise, they should have no objections to my devoted efforts to pass that Families Plan and other proposals in tandem. We will let the American people – and the Congress – decide.”
He added: “The bottom line is this. I gave my word to support the infrastructure plan and that is what I intend to do.”
The controversy pointed to the difficult path ahead in turning Biden’s spending proposals into law. The two measures were always expected to move together through Congress, the bipartisan infrastructure plan needing 60 votes while the second bill would advance under rules allowing for passage solely with majority Democratic votes.
But what had been a celebratory moment for Biden and a group of 10 senators on Thursday was jolted by the president’s surprise insistence at a news conference that he would not sign the bipartisan bill unless Congress also passed his broader package. Some senators felt blindsided.
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.”
On Friday 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,” she said. “He hasn’t said it quietly. He hasn’t even whispered it.”
Psaki said Biden would stand by the commitment he made to the senators “and he expects they’ll do the same”.
Nonetheless, the White House 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 two-track strategy seeks to assure liberals the infrastructure deal won’t be the only one and that the companion package, the American Families Plan, now containing nearly $6tn in childcare, Medicare and other spending, remains on the table.
The White House also 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.
On Saturday, Biden said: “Some Democrats have said they might oppose the infrastructure plan because it omits items they think are important. That’s a mistake in my view.
“Some Republicans now say that they might oppose the infrastructure plan, because I am also trying to pass the American Families Plan. That is also a mistake in my view.
“I intend to work hard to get both of them passed because our country needs both.”
Speaking to the Associated Press on Friday, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, the lead Republican negotiator, said: “My hope is that we’ll still get this done. It’s really good for America. Our infrastructure is in bad shape. It’s about time to get it done.”
Ten Republicans will be needed to pass the bipartisan deal. While the senators in the group which negotiated with Democrats are among some of the more independent-minded lawmakers, it appears Republican leader Mitch McConnell could peel away support.