President Joe Biden met with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema on Tuesday at the White House as his administration ramped up its push for a path forward for its sweeping dual track infrastructure agenda.
Sinema is the lead Democratic negotiator in the bipartisan infrastructure talks – negotiations that for a time this week appeared to run aground – as well as a critical vote on the $3.5 trillion social safety net proposal Democrats plan to move separately on their own.
Biden sought to use the meeting to ensure the bipartisan talks were back on track after an unusually public blame game by the various senators involved in the talks as they missed yet another deadline Monday night.
“They are very much aligned on the path forward. They both feel optimistic on the path forward,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters after the meeting.
Psaki’s comments underscore a key element of the arduous negotiations: Despite pressure from some progressive Democrats, Biden has no intention of ditching the talks anytime soon, officials say.
The stakes are enormous. Officials acknowledge that getting a final agreement in the bipartisan talks, and then passing it through the Senate, is a critical component of keeping open Biden’s easiest pathway to enacting more than $4 trillion in infrastructure and social safety net spending into law.
Still, it’s been a rocky start to the week, with the bipartisan talks seemingly teetering on the brink of failure throughout the day on Monday, and both sides trading public blame for a series of outstanding issues in the negotiations.
But White House officials, behind the scenes, pressed members of the group to cool the tensions – and continue moving forward in the efforts to turn a $1.2 trillion framework into actual legislation that can be considered by the Senate, according to multiple sources.
Members of the group, in a Monday evening meeting, also made clear they remained committed to finding a path forward toward a final agreement. It’s something that appeared to have at least some effect, sources involved in the talks said.
But sticking points continue to loom large even as negotiators signal they are finally ironing out the remaining disagreements. Sen. Tom Carper, the Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, “still has concerns,” his spokesperson told CNN Tuesday.
“There are a number of outstanding issues still on water, transit, climate, and environmental justice,” the spokesperson said.
Biden’s meeting with Sinema appeared to underscore that point to a degree, with the source saying the discussion would center on shared confidence in getting a final agreement over the finish line in the near term based on the most recent talks.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that senators are “making good progress” along both of the tracks to laid out to advance Biden’s economic agenda. The New York Democrat repeated his warning that he may keep the chamber in session through the weekend – an effort to maintain pressure on the bipartisan talks as the participants inch toward an agreement.
Schumer is facing his own balancing act as he seeks to reassure anxious progressives and his caucus while also giving space to the bipartisan group to finalize their work. The latter effort has come under criticism from some Republicans, who have grown skeptical of Schumer’s ultimate goal, a view exacerbated by the decision by the Democrat to propose a “global offer” over the weekend to wrap up all of the outstanding issues.
It was rejected out of hand by Republicans.
“It threw the negotiations for a loop when on Sunday night the White House forwarded a document that reopened a lot of issues we thought had been settled by White House concurrence,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican in the bipartisan group, who has an increasingly frosty relationship with Schumer. “That appears to have been largely driven by the majority leader, but we are trying to get things back on track and we are making progress.”
Biden’s meeting with Sinema appeared to highlight that point to a degree, with the source saying the discussion would center on shared confidence in getting a final agreement over the finish line in the near term based on the most recent talks.
But Biden’s move to meet directly and in person with one of the leading players in the talks makes clear the urgency of the moment – and just how critical Sinema, who has made clear she wants the bipartisan package to move forward, is to his agenda. Biden also met with Sinema at the White House last month as the two worked toward the eventual agreement on the infrastructure framework. Within days, that deal was clinched.
But the meeting comes as some Democrats, anxious to push forward and wary of the GOP commitment to a final agreement, have made clear their patience is running thin.
Schumer wouldn’t set a deadline Tuesday when asked how long he can reasonably allow these talks to go on when August recess is right around the corner.
“As you know, I have done everything to speed them along. First with the motion to proceed on Wednesday and second with the global offer that we made Sunday night. We are getting close,” Schumer said.
Several Democrats have raised concerns about the amount of time the bipartisan talks have taken – and the fact they haven’t reached an outcome to this point – to reporters on Monday. The delay has raised anxiety among some members, particularly progressives, that the talks may fall apart and serve only to delay work on moving the Democrat-only package.
Biden has made clear, both publicly and privately, he’s committed to the group and the agreement the parties reached on the framework in June, officials said.
There are multiple reasons, the officials say. They include Biden’s fierce belief that a significant bipartisan agreement would send an important signal, both domestically and internationally, about the ability of the government to make progress across party lines in a polarized time.
But there’s also the issue of simple math, officials acknowledge. Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, have made clear they have no appetite to move forward on the Democrat-only package without a bipartisan agreement.
“I would say that if the bipartisan infrastructure bill falls apart, everything falls apart,” Manchin told reporters on Monday. “If one falls part, how do you do the other one, how does the other become more important?”
White House officials are keenly aware that without Manchin or Sinema, they simply don’t have the votes to move forward on the second piece of Biden’s agenda, which Democrats plan to move through a budget mechanism that allows for passage on a simple majority basis, in a 50-50 Senate.
The dynamics have all contributed to the emphasis Biden and his top advisers have put on locking in a final agreement – something not lost on one of the most integral players in the process.
“The President is definitely committed,” Manchin said Tuesday.
This story has been updated following the meeting between Biden and Sinema on Tuesday.
CNN’s Ali Zaslav, Manu Raju and Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.