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White House tries to privately calm Democratic fears on infrastructure deal

After being pummeled by progressives for continuing to pursue infrastructure talks with Republicans, the White House is now being offered what’s likely the best bipartisan deal it’s going to get.

On Wednesday, a group of 10 Senate Democrats and Republicans announced that it had agreed on a framework of a compromise. There were scant specifics until late Wednesday night, but negotiators described it as a “historic” investment in infrastructure without raising taxes.

Though the administration has yet to weigh in on the new proposal, its introduction creates an immediate, big decision for President Joe Biden just as he returns to U.S. soil: take the deal and attempt to pass the rest of his sweeping spending proposals through the budget reconciliation process with only Democratic votes, or reject it in favor of crafting one, catch-all, Democratic-only bill with no full assurances that it will pass.

“It is a tricky pathway regardless which way they choose,” David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, said of the decision before the White House. “They’re trying to figure out how to square the circle here. I don’t think they want to put their imprimatur on something before they do their due diligence with other elements of their own coalition.”

The politics around that decision have become particularly dicey this week, as Hill Democrats threw jabs at each other over the merits of the continued pursuit of a bipartisan deal. Through it all, the White House kept its blinders on, sticking to Biden’s “two-track” strategy of negotiating a bipartisan bill and working with Democratic leaders as they began conversations around a budget resolution for reconciliation.

White House officials are aware of the mounting frustration from progressives over Biden’s decision to continue bipartisan talks on a narrow infrastructure proposal — including threats from several Democratic Senators to oppose legislation if robust investments in combating climate change aren’t passed in one of the bills.

A source familiar with White House’s thinking also said they don’t view attacks on centrist Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — two of the main lawmakers pushing for those negotiations — as “helpful or appropriate.” And one House aide said administration officials frequently end infrastructure conversations with lawmakers and staff reminding them Democrats need to stick together.

But Biden and his aides have largely refrained from pushing back on these criticisms publicly. Instead, top aides have been privately reassuring anxious Democrats that they are committed to pushing a reconciliation bill that would contain the other big parts of Biden’s jobs and family plans — including money for eldercare, early childhood and college education, childcare and those provisions addressing climate change.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) is one of few liberal lawmakers who remain optimistic about Democrats’ ability to pass key climate elements in a reconciliation bill. He said the White House has repeatedly reassured him that “they consider the progressive priorities their own priorities.” He also said that the White House has not asked progressives to back off vocalizing their concerns with the bipartisan group.

For weeks, the White House has maintained that there are multiple pathways forward and have been preparing for the event that talks with Republicans collapse. The administration is in regular contact with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, progressives and the bipartisan group, a White House official and Hill sources said.

The White House did not immediately react to the rough agreement supported by a bipartisan group of 20 senators. Instead, in a statement, it said it was assessing the paths forward.

“The White House team was grateful for the briefing from the Democratic Senators involved in the infrastructure negotiations, and found it productive and encouraging,” said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates. “They look forward to briefing the President tomorrow after his return to the White House, and continuing to consult with Senators and Representatives on the path forward.”

Another source close to the White House said the bipartisan deal outlined Wednesday night could help alleviate pressure from Democratic critics who’ve been pressing Biden to abandon negotiations.

On Wednesday evening, Democratic senators involved in the bipartisan negotiations met with White House counselor Steve Ricchetti, director of National Economic Council Brian Deese and White House legislative affairs director Louisa Terrell.

As the White House engages the bipartisan negotiators, it’s also paying attention to the left wing of its party, whose lawmakers have grown more vocal in the past two weeks about fears that their priorities will be left out of the infrastructure proposals that would move through reconciliation or that the fall-back reconciliation bill may not have the votes to pass. The White House has not explicitly said how many votes it has to pass a Democrat-only package. But, Schatz said, the administration has worked to “reassure us that they are committed to the same things.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, also said in an interview Wednesday that the White House has “not in any way told us not to do what we’re doing” as members of her caucus have grown louder in opposition to the bipartisan bill.

Jayapal said that in order for her and other progressives to be on board with a bipartisan deal, all of the reconciliation provisions “would need to be worked out and it would need to be moving at the same time.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said the Democratic base that got Biden elected expects him to do more than a narrow infrastructure bill focused on roads, bridges and broadband. And without clear decisions made about what will be included in a reconciliation package, a number of progressives could withhold votes on a bipartisan bill.

“Many of us have made it clear that that would have to pass the Senate simultaneously — reconciliation and the bipartisan bill — to get votes in the House,” Khanna said Wednesday. “And there are at least 60-70 members who wouldn’t vote for a bipartisan bill that didn’t have climate [inside] a reconciliation bill that had already passed.”

One Senate Democratic aide compared the atmosphere among Democrats to the viral Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala — or “Red flags” — meme, in which snapshot images of a smiling then suddenly anxious Padmé are pulled from a scene in the “Star Wars” prequel.

In the infrastructure-negotiations version of the meme, Manchin and centrists are Anakin, saying, “We are gonna get a bipartisan deal,” the aide said. And the rest of House and Senate Democrats are Padmé, first asking: “And then we’re gonna pass a reconciliation bill, right?” Then, as panic sets in, asking: “And then you’re gonna vote for a reconciliation bill, right?”

Sarah Ferris and Chris Cadelago contributed reporting.

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