‘Not My Intent’: How Biden’s Impromptu Comments Upended a Political Win

WASHINGTON — It was all going according to President Biden’s tightrope plan to pass the most ambitious economic agenda in generations. Right until the moment that Mr. Biden, a politician with a history of rogue comments, veered off script.

After weeks of closed-door negotiations, Mr. Biden strode to the cameras on the White House driveway on Thursday, flanked by an equal number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, to proudly announce an overall infrastructure agreement totaling $1.2 trillion over eight years that could cement his legacy as a bipartisan deal maker.

Mr. Biden and his top aides had successfully struck a limited agreement with key centrist senators to rebuild roads and bridges while carefully signaling to liberals that he still intended to embrace a measure — likely to gain only Democratic support — to spend trillions more on climate, education, child care and other economic priorities. It was an “I told you so” moment for a president who is supremely confident in his ability to navigate legislative negotiations.

But in a stray comment during a news conference an hour later, the president blurted out that he would not approve the compromise bill without the partisan one.

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

It may not seem like much, but it was enough to upend Mr. Biden’s proud bipartisan moment. On the one hand, he was saying out loud what liberals in his party wanted to hear. But to the centrist senators and Republicans, it made explicit a notion that had only been hinted at before — that Mr. Biden not only intended to sign a second, more ambitious package, but that he would also go so far as to veto their bipartisan plan if the larger bill did not materialize.

“We never had an inkling that there would be any kind of linkage,” Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine and a key negotiator, said in an interview. “We always knew that there’d be another bill, but not that the success of the infrastructure package was going to be in any way dependent on the other bill.”

For more than 24 hours, the White House engaged in damage control, with top advisers calling senators from both parties. On Friday, the president’s spokeswoman gently tried to distance the administration from his comments.

It was not enough. And on Saturday, as lawmakers and aides continued to stew and the prospects of a legislative victory seemed to fade, Mr. Biden conceded that he had misspoken.

The drama does not appear to have sunk the deal, but Mr. Biden admitted that his comments on Thursday left “the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to.”

That was “certainly not my intent,” he added.

The agreement Mr. Biden heralded on Thursday initially looked like an unfettered triumph for a president who promised voters he could deliver legislation that was both boldly progressive and widely bipartisan.

It was weeks in the making.

By late May, Senators Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, and Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, had cobbled together eight other centrist colleagues to discuss the possibilities of a bipartisan framework that could replicate the success that led to the passage of a $900 billion coronavirus relief bill in December.

“The easy stuff, I could just put a check mark on it and move on to the next one,” Ms. Sinema said in an interview. “The hard stuff is where you spend your time.”

Looming over the talks was the likelihood that liberal Democrats would use a fast-track process known as reconciliation to bypass the 60-vote filibuster threshold. Meetings grew ever more tense, and the senators invited Steve Ricchetti, a top adviser to Mr. Biden, Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, and Louisa Terrell, the director of the Office of Legislative Affairs.

For days, they crisscrossed the Capitol — including Ms. Sinema, who broke her foot running a marathon, on a crutch — to haggle in back rooms, often ordering in pizza, salads and wine. Mr. Portman’s hideaway grew so cramped with the additional staff that an aide to Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, braved the Senate bureaucracy to secure a fan for the room. During one late-night session, Mr. Ricchetti took it upon himself to walk around the table and pour wine for each senator, according to two people familiar with the moment.

Tempers flared, senators and aides acknowledged in interviews, as the senators clashed over how to finance the framework amid a Republican refusal to increase taxes and the White House’s objections to user fees for drivers.

On Wednesday, many of the centrist senators joined Mr. Biden at a funeral for former Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, before returning to the Capitol for what would be a final round of meetings with his legacy of striking bipartisan accords on their minds.

“What would John Warner do?” said Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, who is of no relation, but who considered him a friend. “John Warner would have hung in. I think probably almost everybody in that room went through some level of that reflection.”

Around 7 p.m., the 10 senators began to emerge with a unified message: They had a framework and they would be going to the White House the next day.

After weeks of closed-door negotiations, it appeared to be a moment of validation for a president certain in his ability to navigate difficult legislative negotiations, after months of talks that his own party had begun to worry were turning into a quagmire for his economic ambitions.

Mr. Biden’s team believed that by winning a bipartisan agreement, they would secure the support of centrist Democratic senators for the larger bill to provide paid leave, fight poverty and climate change and address a host of other liberal priorities, funded by tax increases on corporations and the rich. Some Republicans, egged on by business leaders, hoped to stop the larger bill by arguing to moderate Democrats that the more limited infrastructure bill was all that was needed.

Both lawmakers and Mr. Biden agreed it was also a significant moment to prove that the government could still function. (Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, contended that failure would show “we’re really, really, really dysfunctional.”)

“The message it sends to the American people, and also to our friends and adversaries around the world, is so important,” Mr. Warner said. “In a post-Jan. 6 world, it shows that people who come from different political views can still come together on national priorities.”

Progressive lawmakers had long sounded alarms, worried it was insufficient and would close off a larger bill. On Thursday morning, even as the president and the lawmakers prepared to make their deal public, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, took to the Senate floor to defuse their concerns by underscoring the plan that he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi had worked out with the president.

“These two efforts are tied together. Let me make that clear,” Mr. Schumer said. “Speaker Pelosi agrees that we cannot do one without the other. All parties understand that we won’t get enough votes to pass either unless we have enough votes to pass both.”

In his prepared remarks Thursday in the East Room, soon after celebrating with the senators in the White House driveway, Mr. Biden echoed that strategy.

“I’m going to work closely with Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer to make sure that both move through the legislative process promptly and in tandem,” he said. “Let me emphasize that — and in tandem.”

Democrats had expected a statement of that sort. They did not expect what Mr. Biden did moments later.

During the news conference in the East Room, a reporter sought clarification: “Mr. President, you said you want both of these measures to come to you ‘in tandem.’ Did you receive any assurances that that would happen?”

Mr. Biden said he expected that Congress would work on passage of both the bipartisan infrastructure measure and the bigger Democratic bill at the same time, echoing Mr. Schumer’s earlier comments. But then he went even further again.

“But if only one comes to me, I’m not — and if this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it,” he said. “It’s in tandem.”

With senators leaving Washington on Thursday afternoon for a two-week recess for Fourth of July, it was not until later in the evening that some in the group of negotiators saw Mr. Biden’s comments, which Republicans in particular interpreted as an implicit veto threat. Senators and their staff members began texting and calling one another and the White House.

Liberal Democrats scoffed at the Republican frustration and accused their counterparts of looking for an excuse to oppose the deal, even though the Democrats’ pursuit of reconciliation had long been public.

On Saturday, Mr. Biden finally acknowledged his mistake as lawmakers and aides signaled they would move forward with writing text and securing support.

“The bottom line is this,” he said. “I gave my word to support the infrastructure plan, and that’s what I intend to do. 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.”

Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.

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