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Democrats, GOP agree on one thing: They're skeptical of a deal

The Hill logo The Hill 5/12/2021 Jordain Carney and Morgan Chalfant
a man wearing a suit and tie: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) © Greg Nash Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)

The first White House meeting on Wednesday between President Biden and congressional leaders from both parties in the House and Senate is being met with widespread skepticism that it will lead to any bipartisan compromise.

Whether you ask Republicans or Democrats on Capitol Hill about the meeting, one thing is clear: There is little optimism, and both sides perceive the other as being more interested in a photo-op than actual dealmaking.

Asked what he expected to come out of it, Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, dryly quipped, "An infrastructure bill," before becoming more skeptical.

"I don't know if it's a good-faith effort on the part of the Republicans or not," Durbin said.

Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, said Republicans wanted "common ground" but questioned if Biden would meet them in the middle.

"We're hoping to find a partner in President Biden ... [but] if he's only looking to make a photo-op out of this in an effort to say he's trying to work with Republicans, that's not what we're looking for," he added.

Democrats doubt that Republicans will negotiate in good faith - pointing to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) pledge over a recent recess that he's focused on stopping Biden's agenda.

McConnell later walked that back slightly, saying that he wants to "do business" with Biden but that he needs to be "moderate."

Democrats aren't convinced, noting that it's similar to the remarks McConnell made during former President Obama's tenure about making him a one-term president.

"This is a consistent line. He said the same thing about Obama and tried to make good on it. Didn't cooperate with Obama on virtually any issues," Durbin said.

Republicans are equally skeptical that Biden and Democrats will be willing to come down from their $4 trillion package, which combines a $2.3 trillion infrastructure and climate plan and a $1.8 trillion families plan.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said if Democrats were trying to redefine infrastructure to include broader items that "most of us would never identify as infrastructure, then it will tell us that they really planned on doing it themselves alone."

Some Biden allies say that the president does want a bipartisan deal and that his goal with Wednesday's meeting with congressional leaders is to figure out whether that is possible.

"This isn't for show," said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, who described a bipartisan deal on infrastructure as being within the "realm of possibilities."


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"That doesn't mean that they're ultimately going to get a deal. There are some sincere attempts going on. Sincere attempts don't always lead to success. But it means there is a chance," Kessler said.

One Biden adviser also said the meetings were not simply performative, adding that Biden wants a bipartisan deal if it's possible and that he could look to accomplish the rest of his agenda through reconciliation. The adviser also doubted that McConnell's recent comments would dampen their engagement.

"McConnell said that about Obama too and he and Biden were able to work together," the Biden adviser said. "If he gets the sense from this meeting that McConnell intends to block this thing, he's going to move in another direction."

Biden and Vice President Harris will sit down Wednesday in the Oval Office with the "Big Four": McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

The meeting is expected to touch on Biden's infrastructure proposal but may also wade into other territory, like addressing challenges posed by China.

"His hope is that this can be a discussion about where we can find common agreement, where there is an opportunity to work together moving forward," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

Biden on Thursday will welcome Republican Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Pat Toomey (Pa.), and Roger Wicker (Miss.), along with Barrasso, to the White House for a discussion on infrastructure. Capito led a group of Republicans introducing a counterproposal on infrastructure that would cost $568 billion - about a third of the size of Biden's plan.

Capito downplayed the chances that they would leave the White House with an agreement.

"I don't expect that we'll have an agreement then," she said of Thursday's meeting. But she said she hopes they can get to "serious negotiations."

A number of big differences between the two sides look difficult to reconcile.

Besides the fact that they are far apart on the size of the package, Biden and Republicans are at odds over how to pay for it.

Biden has pitched a combination of higher taxes for corporations, capital gains and some high-income earners.

But that's considered a non-starter for Republicans, who say they will not support changes to the 2017 tax bill. Republicans in 2017 used reconciliation, a process that allowed them to bypass the filibuster, to set the corporate rate at 21 percent.

Republicans have suggested paying for a smaller "core" infrastructure bill through a combination of user fees and an increased gas tax.

But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) poured cold water on that idea, telling The Hill that it would be a "big mistake" to go down that path.

Should Biden ditch Republicans to pass his next piece of legislation using budget reconciliation, he would need every Senate Democrat and most of their House counterparts united.

That means convincing moderates to get on board.

In advance of his meetings with Republicans, Biden also sat down with moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) in separate individual meetings at the White House.

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