Joe Biden and a group of Democratic and Republican senators are agreed on a roughly $1tn bipartisan infrastructure package in hopes of fulfilling one of the president’s top economic priorities – but its prospects remain precarious.
Biden’s endorsement of the deal this week marked a breakthrough moment in his quest to forge a compromise with Republicans for hundreds of billions of dollars in spending on roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs.
“We have a deal,” Biden proclaimed outside the White House on Thursday, standing alongside the group of 10 senators after a meeting in the Oval Office where they outlined their proposal, which would include $579bn in new spending on projects and other initiatives.
But the declaration might have been premature. The deal still faces major challenges, and its passage now rests on a delicate two-track dance between the House and Senate to move both it and a separate spending bill, which Democrats plan to force through despite Republican opposition.
Biden also spent the weekend trying to clean up a mess of his own making, after he said on Thursday he wanted both bills to pass but would be prepared veto the bipartisan plan.
One furious Republican said said that made him and others look like “fucking idiots”. In a statement on Saturday, Biden said that though he had “created the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to” that was not his intent and he would support the deal.
The two-track strategy remains on course. But the difficulty is that, broadly, Republicans say they are wary of legislation driving large increases in federal spending, while Democrats worry the bipartisan package is too lean and think Republicans are just determined to obstruct anything Biden does.
Democrats are placing many of their domestic policy hopes into a separate spending bill that could cost as much as $6tn, in what could be their final chance to push through Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda this year.
It comes amid growing concern that the bipartisan package covers only traditional infrastructure projects and omits much of Biden’s original $4tn vision – such as spending to combat climate change – panned by Republicans.
To break the logjam, top Democrats have coalesced on a complicated strategy that would see the Senate move on the bipartisan package before the House adopts the separate spending bill – all to ensure both pieces of legislation can be enacted.
Laying out the strategy, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said on Thursday the House would not allow a vote on the bipartisan package until the Senate had passed the sweeping spending bill through reconciliation.
“There ain’t gonna be no bipartisan bill unless we’re going to have a reconciliation bill,” Pelosi said, previewing sequencing also endorsed by the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, and the No3 Senate Democrat, Patty Murray.
Pelosi’s move is aimed at giving House Democrats leverage, after some voiced concern that if the bipartisan package was passed first, it could cost moderate votes on the separate spending bill and doom its prospects.
The backstop from Pelosi also effectively pressures centrist Senate Democrats – most notably West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – to extend their votes for passing the separate spending bill by reconciliation, if they wanted the bipartisan package to become law.
In the House, progressive Democrats will be under pressure to support the bipartisan package, since it contains key authorizations of spending measures left in from Biden’s proposal.
But even then, the passage of the bipartisan package, and so also the separate spending bill, is far from guaranteed after the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, declined to say whether he supported the bill.
The bipartisan package requires 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a possible Republican filibuster – a threshold that Democrats would probably struggle to meet should McConnell reject the bill and whip the Senate GOP conference in opposition.
In another worrying sign, the Republican senator Bill Cassidy, part of the group of 10, told reporters he was dismayed by Democrats’ strategy that could sour the compromise and turn his colleagues against the bill.
“We got a very good infrastructure bill that’s president-endorsed bipartisan, which can pass and is paid for. I cannot believe that they’re holding it hostage for their political agenda,” Cassidy said.
Still, the balancing act across the House and Senate, if successful, could deliver both bills to Biden’s desk as early as September.
Congress would first need to pass the annual fiscal year budget resolution before Democrats can start to consider taking the first step of their strategy and pass the separate spending bill through reconciliation.
Senate Democrats are privately considering a sprawling $6tn spending package that would maneuver all the remaining priorities from Biden’s economic agenda, not in the bipartisan bill, around the 60-vote filibuster threshold.
At present, the tentative schedule suggests both the House and Senate could vote on the budget resolution by the second week of August, freeing up the Senate to vote on the reconciliation bill in September, according to a source briefed on the matter.