Biden Walks Back Impromptu Comments That Imperiled Bipartisan Deal

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Politics|Biden Walks Back Impromptu Comments That Imperiled Bipartisan Deal

The admission was an attempt by the White House to salvage what had been one of the signature successes for a president who hopes to cement a legacy as a bipartisan deal maker.

A stray comment made by President Biden at the end of an impromptu news conference on Thursday threw a wrench into the infrastructure deal announced a few hours earlier.
Credit...Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Michael D. Shear

June 26, 2021, 4:48 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — President Biden backed away on Saturday from comments that imperiled a bipartisan deal for $579 billion in new infrastructure spending, saying in a statement that he had “left the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to.”

He added that was “certainly not my intent.”

The admission was an attempt by the White House to salvage what had been, for a fleeting moment, one of the signature successes for a president who hopes to cement a legacy as a bipartisan deal maker. On Thursday, Mr. Biden had proudly announced the infrastructure deal in front of the West Wing, flanked by an equal number of lawmakers from both parties.

But in a stray comment at the end of a news conference an hour later, the president veered off script, saying that he would not sign the compromise bill he just heralded if Congress did not also pass a larger, Democrat-only measure to enact much of the rest of Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion economic agenda.

“If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it,” Mr. Biden said, answering a reporter’s question about the timing of his legislative agenda. “I’m not just signing the bipartisan bill and forgetting about the rest.”

In essence, Mr. Biden was saying out loud what liberals in his party wanted to hear. But in doing so, the president detonated a political hand grenade in the middle of his own short-lived victory. His Republican opponents seized on his comments to suggest that he had negotiated in bad faith. And moderates — who had just departed the celebration at the White House — were furious at his suggestion that weeks of work was at the mercy of approval of a Democratic wish list.

“No deal by extortion!” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said on Twitter after having endorsed an initial framework this month. “It was never suggested to me during these negotiations that President Biden was holding hostage the bipartisan infrastructure proposal unless a liberal reconciliation package was also passed.”

In his statement, Mr. Biden accused Republicans of trying to defeat the infrastructure measure as a way of building opposition to the larger spending plan. He chided Republicans for saying that they might oppose the bipartisan infrastructure plan because of his support for the other bill, known as the American Families Plan.

“Our bipartisan agreement does not preclude Republicans from attempting to defeat my families plan,” Mr. Biden said, adding, “We will let the American people — and the Congress — decide.”

But the president also sought to ease concerns among moderate lawmakers who had negotiated the bipartisan measure that he still supports it.

“The bottom line is this: I gave my word to support the Infrastructure Plan, and that’s what I intend to do,” Mr. Biden wrote. “I intend to pursue the passage of that plan, which Democrats and Republicans agreed to on Thursday, with vigor. It would be good for the economy, good for our country, good for our people. I fully stand behind it without reservation or hesitation.”

It was unclear on Saturday whether Mr. Biden had done enough. But the drama does not appear to have yet sunk the deal. Key senators and aides said on Saturday that they will push forward on it, hammering out details and legislative language and lobbying for the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate filibuster.

Mr. Biden will begin publicly pushing it on Tuesday with an event in Wisconsin, officials said.

“People are very committed to what we’ve done,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire and one of the negotiators. “I didn’t understand the president to take that position, so I’m going to continue to operate and try and build support for the infrastructure package.”

Legislative text for the bipartisan deal still needs to be written as Democrats also work on the second, potentially multitrillion-dollar package, a priority for liberal lawmakers. But that second package, expected to be passed using the reconciliation process, may not be ready for votes until the fall, given the strict budgetary hurdles it must clear.

“There’s no question there’s work ahead, and he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and work like hell to get it done,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said at a briefing on Friday.

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