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Biden Team Seeks Public’s Help to Outrun GOP on Infrastructure

Despite popular support among Republican voters, Congressional Republican leaders have stated their opposition to Biden’s $2.25 trillion plan last week.

(Bloomberg) -- The Biden administration is aiming to corral overwhelming public support for its $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan, targeting Republican voters, independents, mayors, governors and local politicians to counter opposition from GOP lawmakers, according to White House officials and Biden allies.

It’s the same outside-of-Washington playbook President Joe Biden’s team used to successfully pass his stimulus $1.9 trillion bill last month -- applied to an even larger spending proposal that already enjoys a head start in public support, polls suggest.

Biden’s aides and allies believe that just trying to persuade congressional Republicans to support what he calls a jobs plan is the strategy of a bygone era. Barack Obama’s presidency took that tack, when bipartisan negotiations over the Affordable Care Act with GOP lawmakers proved fruitless.

While Biden says he’s happy to work with Republicans, listen to their ideas and make adjustments, the White House doesn’t want to let the GOP slow or water down Democrats’ sweeping policy agenda. One White House official said the president is a realist about what happened during the Obama years as well as about the internal dynamics of the GOP in Washington and the pressures its individual members face.

Congressional Republican leaders quickly stated their opposition to Biden’s $2.25 trillion plan last week, calling it a hodge-podge of liberal aspirations and arguing that its corporate-tax increases would hurt U.S. competitiveness.

Broad Backing

But Biden aides and allies argue proposals like fixing roads and bridges, expanding broadband, boosting taxes on the wealthy and corporations and expanding affordable child care options are overwhelming popular with both Democratic and Republican voters.

In a White House memo sent on March 31 obtained by Bloomberg, senior adviser Anita Dunn wrote that the support for the Covid-19 relief bill remained “steady and popular” from its introduction to its passage. Her memo signaled the White House hopes for the same success with the infrastructure proposal. It cited polling that shows spending on infrastructure is supported by more than half of Americans.

Biden’s team members “have pretty successfully re-positioned the idea of unity to mean a super-majority of the country supports what they are doing -- the test is not whether you can get Kevin McCarthy to vote for it,” John Podesta, former counselor to Obama and former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, said in an interview, referring to the Republican leader in the House.

However, passing the stimulus as the U.S. recovered from the pandemic and an economic downturn will likely prove far easier than Biden’s latest proposal. The argument to the public is trickier, as the price tag is larger, and its elements are disparate -- a combination of proposals to rebuild roads and bridges, increase broadband access, invest in clean energy and expand child and elderly care that is difficult to brand.

‘Incredibly Misguided’

“Raising taxes in the middle of an economic crisis is incredibly misguided,” said Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, the senior Republican on the tax-writing Finance Committee. “Hastily changing the tax code purely for the purposes of raising revenue will bring back inversions and foreign takeovers of U.S. companies, cost jobs, shrink domestic investment and slow down wage growth.”

A new factor in the debate is resurgent U.S. job growth. The country added more than 900,000 jobs in March, more than economists had forecast, as coronavirus vaccinations accelerate and the economy reopens, a report showed Friday.

The administration will also need to accommodate the differing wings of the Democratic party. Even strong supporters expect negotiations to drag on for months, and they worry there is a limit to Congress’s appetite for huge pieces of legislation in the first year of the new administration.

Even so, one White House official said anyone arguing there is not as much urgency surrounding the infrastructure proposal should talk to a mayor or governor waiting for two presidential administrations for the investments now planned.

Aides have said they want significant progress on the bill by Memorial Day, late next month. Biden last week assigned Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to take on the role of emissaries for the infrastructure package.

The five Cabinet officials started their sales tour by phoning top congressional committee chairs and ranking members last week, holding calls with bipartisan governors and mayors and doing roughly 25 TV and radio hits at both the national and local level.

Outreach Efforts

Next week, the Cabinet members plan to hold a series of meetings with congressional committees once the lawmakers return from recess, said a White House official.

The administration has also been reaching out to progressive groups, labor unions, business leaders and business groups, a second White House aide said.

For the pandemic-relief bill, senior administration officials made dozens of appearances in local media and focused their efforts on key political battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia. Biden visited Wisconsin and Michigan -- states he flipped from Donald Trump to win the presidency -- to make the case directly.

“Voters agree on many more issues than elected officials,” said Celinda Lake, who served as one of the top pollsters to Biden’s 2020 campaign and runs the polling firm Lake Research Partners.

Polling Data

Recent polling from Navigator shows at least 70% of Republican voters support increased funding for highway and bridge construction, new job-training programs, expanding broadband access and making childcare more affordable for families.

Half of Republicans surveyed in the poll said they support government investment in clean energy.

And polling by Morning Consult and Politico shows 54% of voters support Biden’s infrastructure plan with tax increases on corporations and Americans earning more than $400,000 -- including 32% of Republicans.

“Even things that Washington Republicans treat as polarizing, like investment in clean energy infrastructure, has support among Republicans. This is not where we were a decade ago,” said Jeff Liszt, a partner at ALG Research, the top polling firm to the Biden campaign.

Mixed Messaging

“If Republicans in rural areas did not like clean energy, do you think Chuck Grassley would have climbed a windmill in an ad during his last campaign?” he said.

Republicans have, meanwhile, shown they are not unified in their criticism of Biden’s policies.

After the Covid-19 aid bill became law without a single Republican vote in Congress, some GOP lawmakers nevertheless promoted provisions included in it that would help their constituents. In Mississippi, for example, GOP Senator Roger Wicker lauded spending to help restaurants and small businesses.

And there’s been little effort by Republicans to criticize that bill for adding to U.S. deficits and debt -- a common attack from the GOP before Trump, who cut taxes and raised spending without focusing on the budgetary impact.

Biden’s allies interpret the lack of GOP message discipline as a sign that appealing to Republican voters and local leaders is a more important tactic than trying to persuade their Washington representatives.

“Immediately after the recovery act, we did not see Republicans talking about deficits and spending. We saw them talking about Dr. Seuss,” Liszt said, in reference to political battles over cultural issues. “That was not an accident.”

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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