Biden Being Biden — Susan Glasser in The New Yorker.
During a lifetime in politics, Joe Biden has delivered countless eulogies, many of them for Republican colleagues in the Senate. Over the years, he has eloquently laid to rest John McCain, of Arizona; William Roth, of Delaware; Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania; and even, controversially, the former segregationist Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina. He has delivered so many eulogies that the Times studied nearly sixty of them during the 2020 campaign, in search of insights into how Biden might lead the nation. On Wednesday, he took the Presidential motorcade up to Washington National Cathedral to bid goodbye to John Warner, the longest-ever-serving Republican senator from Virginia, who died last month, at the age of ninety-four.
Warner, though no liberal, had become a sharp critic of the Republican Party in the Trump era, and he endorsed Biden in last year’s election. Biden gratefully acknowledged that vote of confidence in his speech, a short, loving tribute not only to Warner but also to Biden’s favored political virtues of conscience, conviction, and consensus. The President hailed Warner’s “willingness to work across the aisle,” his “empathy” for those with whom he disagreed, and his abiding commitment to a vision of democracy that transcends differences rather than emphasizes them. “In the battle for the soul of America today,” Biden said, explicitly invoking the rhetoric of his recent campaign, “John Warner is a reminder of what we can do when we come together as one nation.”
But campaign season is over. This is Biden’s governing time, and even as he spoke on Wednesday it was very much an open question whether his promise of a return to bipartisan dealmaking would turn out to be anything other than a nostalgic prayer uttered in a cathedral. The answer came a few hours later, with the first, and so far only, major bipartisan breakthrough of Biden’s still-new Administration: a plan, negotiated by a group of ten senators—five Democrats and five Republicans—to advance a version of Biden’s sweeping infrastructure legislation, reduced to a not-quite-a-trillion-dollar package. If passed, it would be the largest infrastructure bill ever enacted. On Thursday morning, Biden called the negotiators to the White House. Less than an hour later, he emerged, grinning, and announced, “We had a really good meeting. We have a deal.”
After weeks of haggling, the deal had come together late on Wednesday. First, a direct channel between the Biden White House and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican senator from West Virginia, designated by the G.O.P. leadership to hold talks, collapsed. Then a larger bipartisan group, nicknamed the G-10, stepped in, led by the Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, and the Republican Rob Portman, of Ohio. (In classic Washington form, it being a city where everyone wants in on the action, the G-10 swelled to become the G-21 at one point in the negotiations.) Proposals and counterproposals and late-night pizza sessions ensued; even the arrival of the pizza boxes constituted news, as reporters waited to find out if Congress just might, maybe, still be able to do something big.
The central sticking point of the deal, which envisions more than five hundred billion dollars in new spending, was not how much to lay out for roads and bridges and tunnels and other “physical infrastructure” but, rather, the “pay-fors”—as in, how the government would pay for all the new spending. Republicans insisted on no change to corporate tax rates; the Biden Administration and congressional Democrats adamantly opposed proposals to index the gas tax or enact fees on electric vehicles. By Wednesday night, faced with the imminent deadline of a two-week Senate recess, the negotiators emerged with what looked like an agreement. “We have a framework,” Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, tweeted, shortly after 10 P.M. “Meeting at the White House tomorrow.” Seeking to reassure progressives who are increasingly wary of their more sweeping agenda being sold out by the White House, the Democrats’ House and Senate leaders made their own late-night announcement. The bipartisan infrastructure deal, they promised, would be acted on this summer only in parallel with a much costlier budget-reconciliation package that would include priorities of the left, such as child- and elder-care funding, which would be passed presumably with only Democratic votes. “We’re all on the same page,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said—although, even as he said it, it was fair to wonder whether this was more than a bit aspirational.
Democrats and Republicans were still cautious on Thursday, given the realities of a fifty-fifty Senate and a House in which the Democratic majority rests on only a handful of members. Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would not take up the bipartisan infrastructure measure until the Senate passes both that bill and the budget reconciliation. “There ain’t gonna be no bipartisan bill unless we are going to have a reconciliation bill,” she said. “Plain and simple. In fact, I used the word ‘ain’t.’ ” In the Senate, Portman emerged from briefing Republican leaders without their commitment to support the deal, although he said that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was “open-minded.”
Biden certainly seemed to think that the votes would be there. After the short meeting with the G-10 senators on Thursday, the President announced the deal on the White House driveway, around 12:30 P.M. “This reminds me of the days we used to get an awful lot done in the Congress,” Biden said, putting his hand on Portman’s shoulder. Sounding a decidedly old-fashioned note of trust across party lines, he told reporters that “they’ve given me their word”—which, he added, “is good enough for me.” After Biden walked back into the White House, the senators picked up on his theme of nostalgia-tinged reverence for the virtues of across-aisle centrism. As Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican who often seemed to be a party of one in the latter days of the Trump Presidency, put it, “America works, the Senate works, and we can work together.” The other senators nodded their heads as he said it. “Hear! Hear!” some of them shouted.
A couple of hours later, Biden came out to meet the press again, for a more formal celebration in the East Room. As his staff circulated a fact sheet about the deal (a hundred and nine billion dollars for “roads, bridges, major projects”! Forty-nine billion for public transit! Seven and a half billion for electric buses!), the President declared the deal a boon for geopolitical relevance in the twenty-first century, one that “signals to ourselves and to the world that American democracy can deliver.” He also couldn’t resist the opportunity to lecture journalists about what he had learned during his nearly four decades in the Senate. “My party is divided but my party is also rational,” Biden said. “If they can’t get every single thing they want, but all that they have in the bill before them is good, are they going to vote no? I don’t think so.”
It all sounded so . . . normal. So much like how Washington used to work. But it’s a sign of where we are that what was once ordinary now ends up feeling like something profound: a breakthrough, a triumph, a history-defying retort to those who think the American system is broken beyond repair. Biden ran for office on the promise that rational centrism was not yet dead in the United States, conjuring a past and, possibly, a future in which Americans might still agree across party lines on some core values and shared projects. This infrastructure deal proves Biden’s theory of the case: that the elusive middle in American politics is alive, if often hardly in evidence. For that reason alone, this may go down as the biggest week so far of Biden’s Presidency.
Because, up until now, there has been almost no evidence to bolster Biden’s case. Congress has been so riven by extreme partisanship that it could not even agree to a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6th attack on the Capitol. On Thursday, in fact, Pelosi announced, “with great solemnity and sadness,” a plan to appoint a House select committee on the insurrection, it being within her power to do so without the support of the Republican minority. Biden’s $1.9-trillion COVID-relief package received no Republican votes. And, although Thursday afternoon also produced an apparent breakthrough in talks on police reform, another Biden priority, it already appears that gridlock will prevail on many matters on which Biden hopes to make progress, such as gun control and—as a test vote in the Senate showed, earlier this week—voting rights.
For years, infrastructure has been the great bipartisan hope. Donald Trump so often claimed to be introducing—but inexplicably failed to follow through on—his own version of a two-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill that the promise of “Infrastructure Week” became one of the running jokes of his Administration. In Washington these days, it is a hard-and-fast conventional wisdom that, if Biden cannot achieve bipartisan agreement on infrastructure spending, he cannot do so on almost anything of consequence. This is the easy one; it will only get harder. But in truth this was not at all easy; anything beyond this may well be impossible. The habit of taking what you can get and then voting yes has all but vanished. Permanent outrage is Congress’s brand now, not perpetual compromise.
After Biden was done talking, I spoke with one of the Senate negotiators, the Democrat Mark Warner, of Virginia. He had joined the President at the National Cathedral to eulogize his late Republican colleague with the same last name (the two were not related), who not only forgave him for unsuccessfully running against him, in 1996, but eventually became his close friend. When we spoke on Thursday, Warner told me that the late senator had been on his mind during a heated moment at the negotiations, when he almost walked out of the talks. He had closed his binder and was about to leave, Warner said, when, “honest to goodness, I thought of what I’d said earlier in the day, that mantra of ‘What would John Warner do?’ Well, John Warner wouldn’t pack up his notebook and leave,” he told me. “So I reopened my notebook and went back to work.”
In Thursday’s meeting with Biden, Warner said, both he and the Republican Susan Collins, of Maine, brought up the funeral and the muscle memory that it had conjured for them of bipartisan deals past. Perhaps, they proposed, the bill should be named for the late Virginia senator, whose funeral service had helped to bring them together. The deal isn’t perfect, but it is real. And besides, as Warner pointed out to me, many of Biden’s infrastructure priorities in the deal “under Trump, Obama, and Bush never got a dime.” It’s not exactly what the President hoped for, he said, but it’s “not a bad day’s work,” either.
Doonesbury — Take Two.