WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden met with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders at the White House as he sought to reach a consensus on the $2.25 trillion infrastructure bill he is trying to steer through Congress.
"When I ran I said I wasn't going to be the Democratic president, I'm going to be the president for all Americans," Biden said. "But the bottom line here is, we're going to see whether we can reach some consensus on a compromise."
The gathering at the White House that lasted nearly two hours was the president’s first sit-down with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell since taking office in January and is among a string of meetings at the White House this week between Biden and key lawmakers from both parties.
McCarthy said the meeting was "productive" and that he sees an opportunity for Republicans to work with the president on an infrastructure plan. But both Republicans ruled out any tax increases or revisions to the 2017 tax overhaul, which is how Biden has proposed paying for his plan.
"Raising taxes would be the biggest mistake you could make," McCarthy said outside the White House following the meeting. Any change to the 2017 tax law "to us is a non-starter," he said.
McCarthy said a main focus of the meeting was on trying to reach an agreement on what should be included in the bill, with Republicans opposing Biden's plan to include $400 billion in funding for care for the elderly and disabled. He said he also pushed for changes in regulations to speed construction of roads.
"The President enjoyed hosting Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer, Leader McConnell, and Leader McCarthy, and spent the nearly two hours working with them to identify areas where they could collaborate, especially with regard to infrastructure, on which the leaders agreed there was a need for investment," the White House said in a statement after the meeting.
The seemingly congenial end to a bipartisan meeting at the White House was in stark contrast to similar meetings between Democrats and Republicans during the Trump administration. In one instance, former President Donald Trump abruptly walked out on a meeting with Democrats. Pelosi and Schumer angrily exited another.
The GOP leaders also raised concern about rising inflation and the effect more spending could have on rising prices. New Labor Department figures released today showed inflation in April rose at its fastest pace in more than 12 years as the U.S. economic recovery picked up and energy prices jumped higher.
Biden is trying to build support for an infrastructure bill to fund everything from roads and bridges to electric vehicles and elder care, paid for by rising corporate taxes. Republican have balked at the price tag, suggesting they would spend about a quarter of what Biden is proposing, and they have opposed raising taxes to fund his plan.
The White House has said that the president is open to compromise on nearly all aspects of the proposal and that his only red lines are inaction, or raising taxes on those making less than $400,000 a year.
Biden doesn’t need Republican support if he can keep Democrats united; he could get the bill through with a vote along party lines using the same budgetary process Democrats deployed to pass his $2 trillion Covid-19 stimulus bill. But White House officials have said that reaching a compromise on infrastructure could help pave the way for both sides to work together on other issues where he will need Republican support, such as police reform and immigration.
Making an effort at bipartisanship could also help win over moderate Democrats, who would be able to say to their constituents that they made a good faith effort to work with Republicans should the party ultimately decide to move forward on its own.
The meetings will test Biden’s campaign promise of being able to work with Republicans to break the partisan logjam in Washington. Biden has repeatedly cited his track record of working with Republicans during his decades in the Senate and as vice president as evidence that he can work with the opposing party, though much has changed in Republican Party politics in the intervening years.
“We’re going to talk a lot about infrastructure to see if there’s any way we can reach a compromise that gets the people’s work done and that is within the bounds of everyone agreeing,” Biden said Wednesday.
Biden met with McCarthy hours after the House GOP caucus's ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., from her leadership role for acknowledging the legitimacy of his presidential election victory. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that White House officials weren’t spending “much time” analyzing Republican Party infighting and that it wouldn't be a focus of the meeting.
McCarthy dismissed the idea that there was any challenge to Biden's presidency.
“I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election," McCarthy said. "I think that is all over with. We're sitting here with the president today."
Both sides come to the table skeptical about the other's willingness to negotiate. Democratic lawmakers say they are wary of getting drawn into never-ending negotiations that turn out to be fruitless, an experience during the Obama administration that the White House is determined not to repeat. Republican lawmakers say they are concerned the talks are just for show and Democrats will pass a bill unilaterally if they can unite their party.
White House officials have said that Biden wants to see any infrastructure counter proposals from Republicans in the coming days. One White House official has said repeatedly that the president wants to see progress made on trying to reach a bipartisan agreement with Republicans by Memorial Day or else he will reassess his strategy.
One White House aide said before the meeting that officials were “optimistic and hopeful” that some signs of compromise on infrastructure would come out of Wednesday's meeting.
“We’re going to have a discussion about how we can work together,” Psaki said Tuesday.
McConnell said ahead of the meeting that he thought around $600 billion to $800 billion should be spent on infrastructure.
Biden met this week with moderate Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose support he is still trying to lock up for the bill. On Thursday he will meet with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who is working on a bipartisan counterproposal to the measure, along with five other Republican senators.
Behind the scenes, Biden and senior administration officials have been holding weeks of meetings with lawmakers, including more than 400 phone calls or meetings with members of Congress, congressional chiefs of staff and staff directors from both parties.