Biden seeks way around intraparty dispute, GOP debt limit brinksmanship

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has taken a high political risk in personally going to the Capitol and declaring that two major infrastructure bills — one a bipartisan bill already passed in the Senate and the other a House bill that must pass the Senate via reconciliation — must pass in tandem.

The bills together form the cornerstone of his ambitious economic recovery campaign. He has given himself wriggle room, however, in stipulating there is plenty of time to pass them. It is an invitation to divided Democrats in Congress to cooperate, knowing his own leadership is on the line so early in his presidency.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s (approved) in six minutes or in six days or in six weeks,” he told reporters last Friday, speaking of the legislative package. “We’re going to get it done.” He said this in the presence of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had reversed her previous plan to call for the vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, settling for an extension to the end of this month.

At the same time, the Democrats have been dealing with Republican obstruction on raising the federal debt limit. Biden squarely shifted the blame to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had vowed to filibuster any Senate bill to raise the debt limit, which would force Democrats to accomplish the task through a lengthy budget reconciliation project.

When asked by a reporter whether he could guarantee resolving a debt limit dispute holding up the vote, Biden shot back: “No, I can’t. That’s up to Mitch McConnell.”

For his part, McConnell had told the president: “For two and a half months, we have simply warned that since your party wishes to govern alone, it must handle the debt limit alone as well.”

Speaking from the White House Monday, Biden countered: “Raising the debt limit is about paying off your old debts. It has nothing to do with any new pending debt being considered. It has nothing to do with my plan for infrastructure or building back better. Zero.”

On Wednesday, McConnell, likely fearing a federal debt default, promised not to obstruct a Senate bill raising the debt limit into December, but held firm to his determination to force Democrats to use the reconciliation process to raise it into December 2022, after the midterm elections.

Republicans in Congress are looking to the next year’s midterm elections with an eye to taking control of the House, the Senate or both, thus thwarting Biden presidency. With Trump telegraphing a run for a second term with much of the party behind him, and no yet visible challenge for the 2024 nomination, Biden’s own return to the office (should he seek it) might depend on the popularity of his working-class initiatives.

Meanwhile, holdout Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have continued their efforts to make substantial cuts int he agenda. Manchin says he could support no more than $1.5 trillion for the human infrastructure proposal, although he has not proposed what working-class programs he would cut, and how deeply. Biden has reiterated his call for dialogue in the matter.

Some Democrats told the Washington Post that Biden in lengthy remarks had acknowledged the larger proposal — a reconciliation bill that requires only 50 votes to pass in the Senate — would have to be reduced in negotiation. Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont said of Biden, “He said what we all know is true: the $3.5 (trillion) has to come down,” adding that he remained “totally committed” to the bill. He added later: “There’s no win for anybody, until we get both of these bills done. Let’s be clear about that. We have to be successful.”

Joe Biden, it was said in the Senate, could talk a dog off a meat wagon. Right now, his ability is being tested in what could determine his effectiveness as his party’s leader and duly elected president.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.


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