President Joe Biden is preparing for his first face-to-face meeting with the top two congressional Republicans, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, just as the GOP is ramping up opposition to his $4 trillion economic plan, a rallying point for the party amid infighting over allegiance to former President Donald Trump.
After McConnell declared last week that he’s "100%" focused on blocking Biden’s agenda and with McCarthy aligning himself with the faction in his party that questions the legitimacy of the 2020 election, there’s little expectation of a breakthrough.
But the coming week still could prove pivotal for any chances of an agreement on the infrastructure portion of Biden’s suite of long-term economic proposals.
The White House session, which also includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, will take place the same day a Senate committee attempts to advance a bipartisan China-focused manufacturing bill widely seen as a test case for deal-making.
Both sides will be armed with Friday’s jobs report, which showed vastly weaker than expected U.S. job gains in April. Payrolls rose 266,000, less than half the median forecast, while unemployment edged up to 6.1%.
The White House said the report demonstrated the need for the infrastructure and manufacturing-focused American Jobs Plan and social safety net-focused American Families Plan. "We’re still digging our way out of a very deep hole we were put in," Biden said Friday.
The president and other Democrats also said the data should quiet the alarms being raised by Republicans, including Maine Sen. Susan Collins, that the flood of government spending will ignite inflation.
Republicans countered that the hiring shortfall showed it was time to roll back expanded unemployment benefits, saying they were stopping people from going back to work. It also stiffened GOP opposition to the tax increases on the wealthy and corporations that are a central part of the Biden package.
"This is a stunning economic setback, and unequivocal proof that President Biden is sabotaging our jobs recovery with promises of higher taxes and regulation on local businesses that discourage hiring and drive jobs overseas," Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the House tax-writing committee, said.
But previously, Republicans had cited stronger economic data as showing there was no need for additional government spending. That argument may resurface in coming months as more adults get vaccinated, spurring a return to the job market.
The debate over the jobs report comes as Biden and top Democrats continue to say they want to explore moving at least part of the Biden plan through Congress with Republican cooperation before resorting to a partisan budget process to try to ram it through with only Democratic votes. Democrats say that moderates in their party will not consider the partisan approach until a sincere effort at a deal is made.
It is not yet clear if new GOP demands to end the $300 per week supplemental unemployment benefit in order to attempt to boost the labor supply will become a feature of the infrastructure talks. Republicans have mentioned user fees such as a miles-traveled fee to help fund highway spending, or clawing back some COVID-19 relief from states as a way to pay for infrastructure.
So far Senate Republicans have proposed a $568 billion infrastructure plan, but have not specified how to pay for it. That proposal, led by West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, is also smaller than it looks since it counts some funds expected to be spent anyway. Biden’s American Jobs Plan is $2.25 trillion.
On Thursday, Biden plans to meet with Capito and five other Republican senators — John Barrasso of Wyoming, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Mike Crapo of Idaho, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi — to discuss his infrastructure proposal, a White House official said Friday night.
There are other prospects for some deals to cut.
A legislative package intended to make the U.S. a stronger competitor to China is being taken up Wednesday by the Senate Commerce Committee. Among other provisions in the legislation known as the "Endless Frontiers Act" are $100 billion over five years for colleges and universities to help boost research and development and $10 billion to establish regional tech-innovation hubs.
While some Republicans have balked at aspects of the proposal, the bill, originally introduced by Schumer and Indiana Republican Sen. Todd Young, has garnered broad support and could move through Congress before an infrastructure bill.
Separately, the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Senate Environment and Public Works Committees are working behind the scenes to resolve difference over the surface-transportation portion of the Biden plan. Both look to hold votes at the end of this month.
But prospects for bipartisan work on Biden’s wider plans on taxes and social spending are dim. Republican leaders have hardened their stance against the White House, partly in response to a need to unify the party after months of division over Trump.
McCarthy will arrive at the Wednesday meeting with the president following a meeting of House Republicans about the fate of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney as a member of the GOP House leadership. McCarthy has said Cheney’s continued criticism of Trump and his claims that he lost the presidential election because of fraud is a distraction from the party’s top priority — retaking control of the House in the 2022 midterm election.
With the former president maintaining a tight grip on GOP voters, House Republicans are widely expected to replace Cheney with Trump stalwart Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York.
An urge to escape the drama appears to be indirectly affecting the GOP stance on talks with Biden.
Speaking last week in Kentucky, McConnell was pressed on the fight over Cheney and Trump’s persistent claims about the election. He deflected and responded that he was focused on opposing Biden.
"One hundred percent of my focus is on standing up to this administration," McConnell said Wednesday, adding that the GOP was united against his economic proposals.
Democrats immediately jumped on McConnell’s remarks.
"McConnell has no interest in working together with Democrats to deliver for the American people. He’s hell-bent on one thing — retaking the Senate gavel and hamstringing President Biden’s progressive agenda," Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen said in statement echoed by many others.
Many Democrats privately acknowledged that it will be useful in convincing West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and other party moderates to turn to a fast-track budget bill if Republicans do stall bipartisan talks. Manchin and a bipartisan group of senators plan to meet this week to continue exploring a compromise bill.
McConnell partially walked back his comments in an appearance a day later.
"I want to do business with the president, but he needs to be a moderate," he said on Thursday. "I like him personally, he just hasn’t done anything yet that I would characterize as moderate."
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