US president Joe Biden expressed confidence that he could still secure passage of a $1tn bipartisan infrastructure package even after it was blocked by Republican lawmakers in its first congressional vote.
Speaking to voters in Ohio during a televised town hall meeting on Wednesday night, Biden brushed off the setback in a procedural vote as “irrelevant” and said a compromise text could still be agreed by Monday.
“It’s necessary, I really mean it. It’s going to not only increase job opportunities but increase commerce. It’s a good thing and I think we’re going to get it done,” he said at the event hosted by CNN in Cincinnati.
White House officials hope the trip to Ohio will catalyse support for his ambitious multitrillion-dollar economic agenda at a pivotal time for the US recovery and a tricky political juncture.
Although US growth and job creation has jumped since Biden took office in January, the economic outlook has been clouded by the resurgence of the coronavirus because of the rapid spread of the contagious Delta variant, as well as an unnerving jump in inflation.
In the early part of the town hall, the president made a big pitch for Americans to keep getting vaccinated, as inoculations have slowed and cases are rising particularly in Republican-led states where vaccine resistance is widespread. Biden said he expected coronavirus vaccines would soon receive final approval from the Food and Drug Administration — they are currently administered under emergency authorisation — and would soon be available for children under the age of 12.
“We have a pandemic for those who haven’t gotten the vaccination. It’s that basic, that simple,” Biden said. “If you’re vaccinated, you’re not going to be hospitalised. You’re not going to be in an ICU unit. And you are not going to die.”
He also had to fend off concerns about rising prices. “The vast majority of the experts including [on] Wall Street are suggesting that it’s highly unlikely that it’s [going to] be long-term inflation that’s going to get out of hand,” he said.
“There will be near-term inflation” because the economy was being “picked back up” as it recovered from the depths of the pandemic, he added. But Biden struggled to respond to a restaurant owner facing a shortage of workers. “I think your business and the tourist business is really going to be in a bind for a little while.”
The defeat of the infrastructure plan in a procedural vote to advance the legislation does not mean that its chances are doomed, because centrist lawmakers from both parties have vowed to keep negotiating over the coming days.
Biden repeatedly praised his work on the infrastructure package with Rob Portman, the Republican senator from Ohio, even though the political “well has been so poisoned” in recent years by fierce partisanship. “I’ve always found you get rewarded for doing what you think, at the time, is the right thing, or people really believe you believe it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “And so I think you’re seeing it coming together.”
Lawmakers from both parties have been wrangling over the text of the bipartisan deal on infrastructure for weeks, with it having been announced last month.
In an effort to nudge them towards a final deal and force their hand, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, called for a procedural vote on Wednesday afternoon to advance the legislation, which would require the approval of 60 out of 100 senators in the upper chamber of Congress.
In the end, however, all Democratic senators favoured moving ahead with the bill and all Republicans opposed it, meaning it failed to clear the hurdle required for additional debate and a vote. Because Schumer had to switch his vote to a no in order to keep the legislation alive, the final tally was 49 votes in favour and 51 against the motion.
Republicans said they voted against the plan because they needed more time to fine-tune the language, particularly on how to pay for the extra spending.
With talks on a bipartisan bill dragging on, progressive Democrats argue that Biden should turn his focus towards passing the rest of his $4tn agenda — including spending on the social safety net, climate measures and tax increases — solely with the backing of his own party using a legislative manoeuvre known as “reconciliation”. This allows budgetary measures to be approved with a simple majority in the upper chamber of Congress.
“Our roads and bridges are literally crumbling . . . we can’t wait around for the GOP on this because all they want to do is obstruct. It’s time to go big and bold,” Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Washington state, said on Twitter on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Biden is facing growing pressure from within his party to complete other legislative priorities, including a bill to protect voting rights in the face of restrictions imposed in Republican-led states. “I want to make sure we bring along not just all the Democrats, we bring along Republicans who I know know better,” he said. “Look, the American public, you can’t stop them from voting.”
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