It is an unlovely and overused expression, but “sausage making” may soon be the defining cliché of the Biden administration, at least insofar as infrastructure is concerned.
Reporters always press for the latest developments in the slow-moving bipartisan negotiations to fix roads and bridges (and fund other things that Republicans complain have nothing to do with the traditional definition of infrastructure). While Jen Psaki politely declines to negotiate in public, the White House press secretary reminds her questioners that the president never thought getting a deal on infrastructure deal would be easy, let alone neat and tidy.
“Well, I would say the president has a benefit of 36 years in the Senate, where he has seen that the sausage making is messy,” Psaki told reporters last week before Biden left Washington for the G-7 Summit in Falmouth, England. “It takes time,” she said of the proposal with a trillion-dollar price tag. “We’re right in the middle of the sausage making right now.”
This is familiar territory. Before infrastructure, the White House was managing a COVID-relief “sausage-making machine” that “almost always … spits out a different package than what is proposed initially,” Psaki lamented in March. In the end, though, that clunky contraption produced the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
The White House hopes the machine has yet another deal it can spit out — this one to make make good on Biden’s promise to “build back better.” Officials know it will be slow. They don’t seem to care that the process will be ugly. They are not overly concerned with progressives’ fears that Biden’s “relentless focus on infrastructure” jeopardizes other priorities or invites a summer slump.
“Well, this is the first time I've ever heard that Congress and the administration can only do one thing at a time,” joked Ben LaBolt, a former Obama official who is close to the current White House. “President Biden can certainly focus on two pieces of legislation at the same time,” he told RealClearPolitics, “and I think that the call to abandon his focus on infrastructure is completely nuts.”
LaBolt was responding to a growing number of impatient progressives who would like to see Biden shift gears away from infrastructure and towards voting rights legislation.
“Time is running out for the administration to get big, significant things done,” former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro told the Washington Post. “Infrastructure deserves attention, but they need to be putting their energy and their attention more on voting rights right now than I believe they are.” Added former Hillary Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon: “The infrastructure bill — its status is up in the air, but its long-term prognosis is okay. You have another patient that’s dying on the table, and that’s the one you need to triage.”
A bristling former Biden campaign aide summed up the response of many moderates who feel that kind of criticism is counterproductive. “There tends to be a direct relationship,” the aide told RCP, “between how wildly and demonstrably off base certain Democratic [strategists] have been about American politics over the last half decade, and how much advice they have now for the leader who’s gotten the most right during that period.”
But those impatient progressives are alarmed by a number of Republican changes to state voting laws. They believe that passing the For the People Act, a bill setting national election standards -- which the House has approved and the White House supports -- is more urgent. But clearing the Senate isn’t so simple. The GOP uniformly opposes that legislation, and Joe Manchin has pledged to vote against it. The West Virginia Democrat also promised to oppose changing upper chamber rules to allow his party to pass the legislation with a simple majority.
“I don't understand that,” LaBolt said of the calls to swap infrastructure for voting rights. “If he is setting aside his top legislative package for something that doesn’t have the votes today, well, then he's just setting it aside for an up-or-down vote on a package that's not prepared to pass.”
The suggestion that the White House would somehow succeed by deprioritizing infrastructure is not grounded in reality, according to Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, the center-left think tank that helped produce a comprehensive report on why congressional Democrats didn’t do as well as they had hoped in 2020. “They seem to have some theory by which Joe Biden or Chuck Schumer can force Joe Manchin to do something that Joe Manchin doesn't want to do,” he told RCP. “There is no evidence to support those theories.”
It is not like the White House has not been courting Manchin either. The president often calls the two-term lawmaker, has invited him to the Oval Office, and even appointed his wife, Gayle, to a plum spot on the Appalachian Regional Commission. But the moderate is not alone in his stance. Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, for instance, haven’t taken a position on reforming the filibuster, a step that would have to be taken to pass the voting reforms that progressives want. Both freshmen are up for reelection in swing states next year.
The White House insists it can work on both priorities simultaneously, though that hasn’t quieted the party’s clamorous left flank. “I understand the impulse,” Bennett said of that simmering disagreement, “because there's no question that protecting our democracy is the paramount issue.” But again, he added, progressives well know “that there is no path forward on the democracy bills at the moment.”
The moderate theory is that success begets success, that if Democrats focus on infrastructure, as tiresome of that process might be, a tangible win there could grease the skids for bigger congressional majorities in 2022 and thus bigger reforms, including the For the People Act. “If Biden gets done what he has proposed,” Bennett said, “that is what Democrats will be able to take home with them.”
The president has been involved in the negotiations, but so far has avoided publicly getting his hands too dirty in the complicated sausage-making process. He did address the progressive criticism earlier this month, and delivered a glancing rebuke to Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
“I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why didn’t Biden get this done?’” the president said after promising to “fight like heck” against GOP changes to state voting laws. “Well, because Biden only has a majority of, effectively, four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends.”
But that kind of wrangling doesn’t bother the president, said Moe Vela, a senior adviser to Biden during his vice presidency. “I've never seen him be repelled by criticism. He kind of takes it in stride, but he respects it.”
If anything, Biden understands it is part of a messy process.