President Joe Biden is hitting the road Tuesday to sell a fragile bipartisan infrastructure deal in one of the most politically divided states in the country, where he will simultaneously need to assure Republicans that he’ll stick to the limits of a plan that progressive Democrats worry isn’t big enough to address major challenges facing the country.
Biden is visiting La Crosse, Wisconsin, a reliable Democratic stronghold on the Mississippi River surrounded by a bloc of Obama-Trump counties in the battleground state’s southwest corner. Biden narrowly won Wisconsin in 2020 by 20,000 votes. Former President Donald Trump won it by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016.
Biden will pitch the nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal as “a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America,” according to an internal memo circulated by the White House ahead of the president’s trip.
Ninety percent of the jobs that would be generated by the plan’s spending — which includes budgets for new roads and bridges, clean drinking water and broadband internet — could go to workers without college degrees, according to the memo from Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, and senior adviser Anita Dunn.
The plan, which falls short of his administration’s initially proposed infrastructure package, is the result of painstaking negotiations between the White House and a group of 11 Republican and 10 Democratic senators seeking a compromise that could win bipartisan support. Last week, Biden threatened not to sign the deal if Congress didn’t also pass what’s expected to be a several trillion dollar legislative package that would fund a number of progressive programs not traditionally considered infrastructure, like federally funded child care and green climate investments, that didn’t make it into the bipartisan deal. The more progressive package could be passed without Republican support, via the budget reconciliation process, but would need the support of all 50 Senate Democrats.
“While the bill is missing some critical initiatives on climate change that I proposed — initiatives I intend to pass in the reconciliation bill — the infrastructure deal nonetheless represents a crucial step forward in building our clean energy future,” Biden wrote in a Yahoo News op-ed published Monday night.
Senate Republicans, who oppose the more progressive package, say they want Biden to make clear he isn’t linking the two bills. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday it would be up to Congress, not Biden, to decide how to proceed.
Biden now finds himself in a balancing act as he tries to shore up the 10 Senate GOP votes he’ll need to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill while facing pressure from progressives who worry he is prioritizing the bipartisan deal at the expense of the larger reconciliation bill.
Wisconsin’s Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a Democrat, says he wants to hear Biden on Tuesday make clear he’s “ready to go to bat” for the reconciliation bill.
“I don’t want us to get to a point where we’re sitting, waiting, saying, ‘Oh we’ll get this one in the next one, we’ll make sure that happens in the next one.’ Because the further we go down that road, you get to a point where there’s not really any turning back,” said Barnes, who has been actively exploring a 2022 Senate bid and told PBS NewsHour he plans to decide “very, very soon” whether he’ll run. “The big, bold agenda that people of this country are calling for, we need to make sure that is the priority.”
White House officials say the president is ready to get to work to pass both bills, which Biden has said he wants to move forward “in tandem.”
“They know we share their goals and we’re going to take this process one step at a time as things continue to move through Congress, a senior White House official said of progressives’ concerns. “So we will adjust accordingly, deliver the messages as information comes to be, depending on where we are in the process.”
The White House is hoping the bipartisan infrastructure deal boosts Democrats ahead of 2022, especially in key swing districts like Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District where Biden will visit Tuesday. Longtime U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a moderate Democrat, barely won reelection there last November.
White House officials were originally planning for Biden to travel to a dairy farm a few miles from La Crosse in Monroe County with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but the trip was later refocused around the infrastructure plan. Former President Barack Obama won Monroe County by less than a percentage point in 2012. Biden lost it by 24 points last November.
On Tuesday, Biden will tour La Crosse’s transit hub and deliver a speech about the need for the bipartisan infrastructure plan, something he’s argued is critical for America to maintain its global competitiveness. Biden staffers have notified a nearby 1930s-style ice cream and soda parlor known as “The Pearl” that the president may stop by as well.
White House officials point to the bipartisan plan’s funding to eliminate the nation’s lead water pipes and build new roads and bridges as a means to re-engage voters in swing districts who ousted a string of incumbents in 2020 amid GOP efforts to paint Democrats like Kind as radicals and anti-police.
“I think the president has a chance to reset that relationship,” Kind said, referring especially to rural voters in his district. “I do think it helps showing up and just listening.”
A roughly $65 billion investment in broadband internet is another piece of the bipartisan plan that Biden plans to tout in Wisconsin.
In eight Wisconsin counties, more than one in five households don’t have access to the internet, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“We desperately need rural broadband,” said Kevin Krentz, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau. Reaching rural Wisconsin’s small villages and family farms remains a huge challenge, he said.
Democrats and the White House are also working to calm fears over inflation and a labor shortage, which Republicans are highlighting ahead of the 2022 midterms.
“We just can’t hire people,” said Bob Kirchoff, CEO of Organic Valley, a dairy cooperative headquartered in the district that employs 600 Wisconsinites and purchases milk from 400 small farms across the state. Kirchoff worries Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ decision not to end expanded pandemic unemployment benefits in Wisconsin, as some Republican governors have done in their own states, is to blame for the labor shortage. The company pays workers more than $15 an hour, upwards of double the state’s minimum wage, but may need to raise wages again to attract workers, he said.
Farmers in Wisconsin also blame the labor shortage in part on a lack of visas for immigrant farm workers, who are critical to keeping the state’s agriculture industry going.
A permanent pathway to citizenship for those immigrant agricultural workers and other immigrants is among the wide array of progressive legislation that Democrats want to add to the reconciliation bill.
Kind acknowledged there’s “a lot of ambition” for the reconciliation package, but he wasn’t sure if the immigration bills would make the cut. House Democrats can only afford to lose four votes and still pass the reconciliation bill, and one has already said he won’t vote for the bill. While Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has said he wants a $6 trillion package, Kind cautioned the package “needs to be practical.”