WASHINGTON - For nearly an hour, President Joe Biden and the top Senate Republican negotiating infrastructure met Wednesday behind closed doors - two seasoned legislators engaged in another round of conversations, but emerging with few outward signs of tangible progress ahead of a deadline next week.
The White House billed the private meeting as more of a conversation with West Virginia GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, rather than a formal negotiation. No new offers were expected to be presented. More than anything, the session in the Oval Office was seen through the political lens of the president and Republicans trying to show the public what Americans say they want - a willingness to work together, even if no deal is within reach.
Biden and Capito had a "constructive and frank conversation," according to a White House official granted anonymity to discuss the private talks. The senator's office said she is encouraged by the ongoing conversations. The two agreed to reconnect Friday.
Still, talks over Biden's top legislative priority have been moving slowly, a daunting undertaking given the massive infrastructure investment, and time for a deal is running out. The administration has set a June 7 deadline to see clear direction and signs of progress.
"The fact that the president is having Sen. Capito here today and has been having ongoing discussions with Republicans in the Senate and that he's eager to find a path forward on bipartisanship work certainly tells you, I think, what you need to know about what he thinks about working with people even when there's disagreement," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said ahead of the afternoon session.
Privately, the president has sized up the GOP's latest $928 billion offer as unworkable, in large part because it taps unused COVID-19 funds. Instead, Biden wants to hike the corporate tax rate - a nonstarter for Senate Republicans - to generate revenue for his $1.7 trillion package.
The ongoing talks may take on new importance after Democrats suffered a setback Wednesday in their efforts to attempt to pass this and other Biden priorities on party-line votes. The Senate parliamentarian signaled new limits on how many times Democrats can use the budget reconciliation process that allows a 51-vote threshold, rather than the 60 votes typically needed to advance legislation. In a four-page memo, the parliamentarian made it clear Democrats will likely have only more only one more opportunity to use the budget process this year, essentially closing the door on a strategy they were eyeing for multiple votes.
Friday's next round of talks between Biden and the Republican senator would overlap with the release of the May jobs report, as private economists estimate a meaningful increase from the disappointing April figures. May's jobs figures could provide evidence as to whether Biden's earlier $1.9 trillion COVID relief package has helped put the country on track to recover the jobs lost to the pandemic.
Heading into the meeting, Capito was expected to re-up the GOP's push to repurpose the coronavirus relief fund to pay for infrastructure investments, said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who has tasked her to lead the discussions.
"That's the key to getting a bipartisan agreement," McConnell said at a press conference in Kentucky. He said he particularly wants to halt unemployment assistance that he says is preventing Americans from returning to work.
"The coronavirus is behind us. We need to get back to work," McConnell said.
The White House has pared back the president's initial $2.3 trillion bid, now tallied at $1.7 trillion, with Biden proposing to fund the investment by raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%.
Without a bipartisan agreement with Republicans, Biden will be faced with trying to muscle support from Democrats alone. That approach also poses political challenges, particularly in the evenly split Senate, where the administration has no votes to spare if the president tries to push through the package under the budget rules that allow for a simple majority vote.
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