Congressional Republicans are painting President Biden as captive to the progressive wing of his party despite the popularity of his major initiatives in his first 100 days in office.
GOP leaders, and those thinking about running to replace Biden in 2024, are seizing on the crisis at the border and policies they deem "far left" included in the president's massive infrastructure proposal as pivoting the country down a dangerous path.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday described the president's first 100 days as the "Biden bait and switch," saying as a candidate Biden ran as a moderate, "but I'm hard-pressed to think of anything at all that he's done so far that would indicate some degree of moderation."
The response to the coronavirus pandemic has defined Biden's early months in office, and no GOP lawmaker voted for the $1.9 trillion rescue package that stands as his major legislative accomplishment to date. While many Republicans backed elements of the relief bill, they opposed the size and scope of the effort. And they maintain his subsequent multitrillion-dollar jobs and infrastructure proposals will harm the economy, and they've shown little sign of finding any middle ground on the issue.
Democrats say Biden is just following through on his campaign promises. He's set to detail another key plank of his agenda — the American Families Plan — on Wednesday night in his first joint address to Congress.
Some GOP lawmakers acknowledge Biden is popular now — with polls showing more than half of Americans approve of his performance in office so far — but they say that as more voters learn the details of how billions in federal aid is being spent on things that don't qualify as pandemic relief, they will be less likely to support trillions more in a federal response.
Republicans point out that Biden ran on reaching out and working with Republican lawmakers, but so far he has shut them out of major policy decisions.
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House GOP leader, told reporters covering a party retreat in Florida that Biden was pursuing a "go-it-alone strategy" and noted that the president hasn't asked to meet with the top House Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, or him.
Biden may not be courting top GOP leaders with Oval Office visits in front of television cameras, but he already has a long relationship with McConnell and many others from his more than three decades in the Senate and his time as vice president. In recent weeks he has invited groups of Republican lawmakers to the White House to discuss a range of issues — picking those who have offered their own proposals on COVID-19 aid, or have worked in the past on bipartisan infrastructure legislation or policies to boost the competitiveness of U.S. companies.
Rather than focus on Biden personally, because he isn't viewed as a polarizing president, Republicans instead are training their focus on other Democratic figures who cut more controversial profiles — such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the author of the sweeping Green New Deal proposal to remake the economy and dramatically cut carbon emissions.
Infrastructure, traditionally a bipartisan issue, could be a party-line vote
A day ahead of Biden's address to Congress, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, McConnell's deputy in leadership, told reporters he expected it to outline "the big government agenda."
Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana — who was part of a nearly two-hour bipartisan meeting at the White House this month about how to craft a major infrastructure plan — told NPR he was open to expanding what could be included, saying things such as broadband may fit. But he said some of the items Biden wants, such as child care support or new health care programs, amounted to "infra-socialism" and said "that's very different" from previous bipartisan packages that passed with overwhelming majorities.
Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who was part of a bipartisan group that met with Biden early on to discuss COVID-19 proposals, is also part of a GOP group pushing an alternate infrastructure plan. He told reporters he and others agree roads, bridges and water projects qualify, but that some of the types of programs that Democrats are branding as infrastructure "by any definition is dishonest."
Hill Republicans have also indicated that Biden's proposal to pay for the jobs plan — rolling back tax cuts enacted by the GOP in 2017 — is a nonstarter.
That impasse and differences about the scope of the proposal are major hurdles to any hope for GOP support for Biden's chief domestic initiative.
Democrats on the Hill have adopted the White House justification that the president's policies could be bipartisan, even if zero Republicans in Congress back them.
"If it's popular with Republicans. If Republican stakeholders, mayors and governors, [the] U.S. Chamber of Commerce like it, then yeah, I think it is bipartisan," Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said earlier this week.
Senate Republicans produced their own version of a proposal — a $568 billion infrastructure plan – but the gulf between the parties appears even greater than it was when Congress debated coronavirus relief legislation and Democrats decided to use budget rules to approve it without GOP votes.
Border as wedge issue, again
Republicans, both in Congress and around the country, continue to believe that Biden is weakest on immigration, and the issue represents the administration's biggest political vulnerability.
The number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border last month was the largest in at least 15 years. A spike in unaccompanied minors has been a challenge for the administration to manage as federal agencies work to house them amid the pandemic and new facilities brought online continue to be overwhelmed.
Led by former President Donald Trump, the GOP has doubled down on hard-line immigration policies. Republican campaigns are already targeting vulnerable Democrats in swing House districts and competitive Senate races, indicating that support of Biden's policies amounts to an "open borders" policy, a sign the GOP believes the issue will resonate in the 2022 midterm elections.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who may be a possible 2024 candidate for president, led a delegation of 18 senators to the border and penned an editorial in Newsweek arguing the situation at the border is a direct result of Biden reversing Trump's policies. He and others say Biden's stopping construction on Trump's border wall and reinstating Obama-era policies allowing some undocumented to be released have contributed to the influx of migrants. They also say ending another Trump policy, in which Central American migrants who entered Mexico on the way to apply for asylum in the U.S. had to stay in Mexico until their cases were heard, has incentivized a massive wave of new undocumented people to flood across the border.
Bipartisan talks have been revived on some type of immigration reforms as the situation intensifies at the Southwest border. But even Republicans who once backed a path to citizenship for undocumented workers as part of a comprehensive bill are saying the most likely proposal to gain any traction would be a more targeted bill directed at so-called DREAMers, those brought to the country as children. McConnell insisted Tuesday any effort would have to address the current border security crisis.
The window for Republican willingness to cut any significant deals could be closing soon. Leaders are confident that midterm history is on their side, and that the party in power will lose enough seats in the narrowly divided House, and potentially in the 50-50 Senate, to flip control of one or both chambers of Congress back to the GOP.