Biden Infrastructure Plan To Test His Bipartisan Promises The president promised to "build back better" after dealing with the pandemic. He also said he could work with Republicans, and his next legislative push will test that.

Building A Big Infrastructure Plan, Biden Starts With A Bridge To Republicans

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden's team is preparing for its next legislative effort. It's an infrastructure bill, and in terms of dollars, it would be even larger than the COVID relief plan that just passed. This bill would write into law Biden's alliterative campaign promise Build Back Better. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: If the rescue plan was designed to put out the fire, Biden's Build Back Better agenda is meant to reconstruct the house.

BILL GALSTON: The Build Back Better bill is the legacy bill. It's the bill that will define the meaning of the Biden presidency.

LIASSON: That's Bill Galston, former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House. He says Biden's infrastructure plan isn't just roads and bridges; it's a major investment in manufacturing and the technologies of the future, like 5G, a green electric grid, semiconductors, carbon-free transportation. Galston says this is the bill that could transform the country.

GALSTON: A country that has not invested in itself for a very long time, a country that is on the verge of losing its technological and economic superiority to the rising power at the other side of the Pacific.

LIASSON: The need to outcompete China is something that both parties agree on, and it's at the heart of Biden's sales pitch for Build Back Better.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If we don't get moving, they're going to eat our lunch.

LIASSON: That's Biden in a bipartisan meeting at the White House the day after he met with China's leader. Biden has a lot of fundamental decisions to make about the Build Back Better package - how or whether to pay for what will be a multitrillion dollar investment, what pieces of the plan should go first, and is it possible to get any Republican votes, something Biden failed to do on the COVID relief bill.

GALSTON: The big question is whether the strategy for passing the COVID-19 bill is a template or whether it's an exception.

LIASSON: There have been bipartisan meetings at the White House, in the Senate and in the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has instructed her Democratic committee chairmen to work with their Republican counterparts to develop the legislation. That would be kind of old-fashioned, but there's no one more enamored of bipartisan buy-in the old-fashioned way than Joe Biden. Here he is after a bipartisan meeting at the White House about infrastructure.

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BIDEN: It's the best meeting I think we've had so far, and we've only been here about five weeks. It's like the old days - people are actually on the same page.

LIASSON: The latest thinking among Democrats is that they're pieces of an infrastructure agenda that could be broken off and passed as smaller individual bills with Republican votes, things like universal broadband, anything that confronts China. But Republicans are skeptical after the COVID relief bill. Here's Ohio Senator Rob Portman on Fox.

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ROB PORTMAN: The notion is we could get together there because Republicans and Democrats both believe our infrastructure needs help. It's crumbling. It will help the economy if done right. My concern is, once again, they're going to ignore the Republicans as they did this time around.

LIASSON: Democrats hear that and think Republicans will do what they did to President Obama - refuse to compromise, then attack the president for failing to get them to compromise. And it's possible that the relationship between the two parties on Capitol Hill is just too broken for bipartisanship, especially after January 6, when a majority of Republicans voted to overturn the 2020 election. In the White House, bipartisanship is seen as something to strive for. It's part of Biden's political DNA.

But in the end, as long as voters see that Biden tried hard to work across the aisle, it's not a political necessity. Elaine Kamarck is a former Clinton White House aide and the author of "Why Presidents Fail." She says the only thing bipartisanship buys you is that both parties end up owning the policy they just passed, for better or for worse.

ELAINE KAMARCK: If it's bipartisan, you weather those hiccups better than you do if you've only passed it with one party. In the end, it doesn't really matter that much...

LIASSON: Yeah.

KAMARCK: ...As long as it gets implemented.

LIASSON: In other words, to voters, the process isn't as important as the product. But Bill Galston thinks this may be misreading the politics. He thinks getting Republican votes is a political necessity for Biden because, Galston says, the president made another important campaign promise.

GALSTON: That he would work harder than his predecessors did to restore the ability of the two parties not only to talk to each other civilly but also to work together.

LIASSON: Galston says that campaign promise really mattered to swing voters in the suburbs, the voters that made the difference between victory and defeat for Biden. And those voters took Biden's promise of bipartisanship seriously and literally. On ABC last week, Biden was asked by George Stephanopoulos about his prediction that Republicans would see the light after the election and be willing to compromise.

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GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: They haven't had that epiphany you said you were going to see in the campaign.

BIDEN: No, no. Well, I've only been here six weeks, pal. OK? Give me a break (laughter). Been here six weeks.

LIASSON: Biden went on to talk about how popular his COVID rescue bill was with ordinary Republicans, if not with Republican members of Congress, and he revealed how important those voters are to him.

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BIDEN: I'm not saying we'll - I'll do it again. But I want those Republican voters in suburbia.

LIASSON: The president won't be on the ballot in 2022, but his agenda will, and Democrats need to do better with those Republican voters in suburbia if they are to hang on to their tiny majorities in both houses of Congress. How Biden goes about passing his next big proposal may determine whether his party wins them or not.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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