WASHINGTON — Even before he has secured his first major legislative priority, President Joe Biden is crafting the pitch for his second: an even larger spending plan that the White House is billing as the infrastructure package long sought by both parties.
While any final votes on passage of a Covid-19 relief package are still at least weeks away, Biden has already begun wooing Republicans over his infrastructure push, which is likely to be the focus of a historically late first address to Congress, probably sometime in March. But even as he courts Republican support, White House officials have already begun discussing the possibility of moving ahead without it, just as Democrats appear poised to do with pandemic relief.
Biden welcomed a bipartisan group of senators to the Oval Office on Thursday for a discussion about what the White House described as "the critical need to invest in modern and sustainable American infrastructure."
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., one of the participants, called it a "very good" conversation but warned Democrats about overstepping.
"When you're working on infrastructure, that's high-dollar stuff," he said. "And I just don't want them to put their agenda on something else just to try to hold it hostage."
A new legislative push would set up another test of whether Biden's desire to move quickly on key campaign promises will come at the expense of his stated goal of working across the aisle whenever possible.
Bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill is already rare. Biden met with Republicans during the impeachment trial of his predecessor, which Biden officials say they fear has already poisoned the atmosphere for good-faith negotiations, even as Biden has done his best to steer clear of it.
Biden outlined a more than $2 trillion infrastructure plan during the presidential campaign, saying at the time that it would be the "largest mobilization of public investment since World War II." The plan and a similar framework that passed the Democratic-led House in the last Congress are the basis of what Biden will propose.
Beyond just repairs or new construction of roads and bridges, the plan included expanding broadband access, as well as an ambitious climate agenda.
"We are looking at a much broader definition of infrastructure going forward than has been the practice of the past," House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a top Biden ally, said in an interview.
Officials hope passing the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan, combined with progress on increasing vaccine distribution, will help build momentum for further economic stimulus, which Biden would sell in a prime-time speech to Congress and what could be his largest post-inauguration audience.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that the address would wait until after the pandemic relief bill is passed, meaning Biden's first address to Congress would be the latest by a first-year president since the inauguration was moved from March to January in 1937.
"That is the first order of business," she said.
The infrastructure effort would mark a pivot from "rescue" mode to an ambitious blueprint to modernize America's infrastructure and put the economy on a surer footing.
"The president and many Democrats and Republicans in Congress believe that ... building infrastructure that's in our national interests, that boosts the U.S. economy, creates good-paying union jobs here in America and advances our climate and clean energy goals are something that we can certainly work on doing together," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week.
The White House is also prepared to sell the recovery package as part of the administration's foreign policy strategy, particularly its efforts to challenge China.
A senior administration official said Biden's approach to China hinges largely on the ability of the U.S. to strengthen its economic foundation, particularly "to ensure that we are making the public investments necessary to emerge stronger out of the other side of this economic crisis and to maintain our innovation edge and to rebuild our industrial base."
Invoking his conversation Wednesday night with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden told lawmakers Thursday: "If we don't get moving, they're going to eat our lunch. They're investing billions of dollars in dealing with a whole range of issues that relate to transportation and the environment and a whole range of other things, and so we just have to step up."
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Biden's so-called Build Back Better agenda was also a major focus of his meeting this week with some of the country's top business leaders as the White House works to build bipartisan support from outside Washington in the face of what it expects will be another uphill battle to win the support of Republicans in Congress.
Democrats expect that any new major spending measure they put on the floor will again have to pass through the reconciliation process to avoid a Senate filibuster, and they are bracing for Republican attacks on the expected price tag.
"I talk to my former colleagues all the time. They remind me that the issue isn't building infrastructure. The issue is who pays for it," said former Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y.
When Biden announced it in July, he said his infrastructure plan would double as an aggressive effort to combat climate change — the kind of framing Republicans like Inhofe are likely to challenge.
One of the initiatives Biden promoted most often on the campaign trail was to add hundreds of thousands of electric vehicle charging stations across the country as part of a massive infusion of federal cash to hasten the transition to electric vehicles and renewable energy, a critical part of his goal of attaining 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and zeroing out U.S. greenhouse gas emissions entirely by 2050.
Biden's campaign proposal also called for spending billions to modernize schools and weatherize private and public housing and to fund and expedite permitting for a quick start to repairing highways, roads and bridges, as well as a familiar Biden priority — a national high-speed rail network that he has said would be the "second great railroad revolution."
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who joined Thursday's Oval Office meeting virtually, is expected to play a major role in promoting Biden's plan before and potentially after its passage to highlight its benefits.