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On Capitol Hill, a rough month ends in a glimmer of hope for Biden's agenda

The president's legislative ambitions are on shaky ground. But there remains a path to success for his top priority.
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WASHINGTON — A major election overhaul bill flopped. Gun safety negotiations collapsed. Equal pay legislation was filibustered. And progressive dreams of nuking the 60-vote rule this summer to push through President Joe Biden’s agenda all but fizzled.

June has been a perilous month for Biden’s legislative ambitions on Capitol Hill. But it is ending with a glimmer of hope after two bipartisan groups reached tentative agreements on a $579 billion physical infrastructure package and a police reform package.

Neither is a done deal. Actual bills have yet to be written. And Republicans are already threatening to torpedo the infrastructure deal if it is linked to a separate multitrillion Democrats-only package.

The month of dead ends for Biden’s proposals in the evenly divided Senate underscored the fragility of Democratic power and the shaky ground that president's agenda stands on.

Progressives are getting nervous, fearing that their window for action is closing.

“We have to move quickly. I think we don't have a lot of time,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the progressive caucus chair. “I'm not in the place of saying it's in its death throes or anything — that's not where I believe it is. But I believe that we are extremely vulnerable to being played by Republicans.”

Jayapal said she worries about Democrats being cornered by the GOP “into a situation where they're not going to pass anything — and we're waiting for them to get on board, and in the process, we don't deliver, and we lose our majorities for a long time.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Biden should pare back his ambitions due to the slim Democratic majorities in Congress.

“I think he misread his election. He didn't get a mandate for some sort of progressive, radical agenda,” he said. “When you have a 50-50 split in the Senate, that's a problem. And I think we're seeing that reflected.”

Within hours of unveiling the infrastructure pact, Republican leaders began throwing cold water on it, complaining that Biden said he’d only sign it alongside a filibuster-proof bill to invest in child care, education and climate action. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Fox News that his party went “from optimism to pessimism” after that.

On Friday afternoon, as the House was wrapping up its week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki faced questions about whether Biden’s top priority was now in jeopardy.

“Is the infrastructure agreement already stuck in a pothole?” a reporter asked.

“You worked hard on that. I like it,” Psaki quipped, drawing awkward laughter in the briefing room.

She added, “Absolutely not, in our view.”

Biden did some damage control on Saturday, making clear in a lengthy written statement that he didn't mean to suggest he wouldn't sign the infrastructure bill without the larger plan, while adding that he still wants Congress to advance both proposals “in tandem.”

By Sunday, Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, two members of the working group, said the deal was back on track for success.

“It's a great deal. It is actually going to provide the infrastructure that American people — that the American people want, that they need, that will make our country more prosperous for all Americans,” Cassidy said on NBC's "Meet The Press."

The White House is navigating a complex situation. Getting progressives on board with the infrastructure deal requires getting moderates on board with the separate larger bill. And achieving party unity on the other bill will be tougher without giving centrists a bipartisan victory.

The two wings of the party have reached a tentative pact to advance both on parallel tracks, said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.

Giving to GOP demands to drop reconciliation could jeopardize the bipartisan deal.

“That’s not going to fly here,” Gallego said. “You wouldn’t have enough votes — unless you’re going to be able to get a lot of votes from Republicans, which I doubt.”

If the bipartisan deal were to collapse, Democrats would have to decide whether to pass most of Biden's infrastructure and economic policies in a single package or drop the effort.

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., a moderate who helped Democrats capture control of the House in the 2018 election, said he supports both the bipartisan and reconciliation pushes. And he dismissed the threats from Republicans like McConnell as “political posturing.”

“Let the minority leader say whatever he wishes. This is chapter one of a multichapter book,” he said. “So we'll see where it goes.”