Full Episode: President Biden’s Infrastructure Breakthrough

Jun. 25, 2021 AT 9:20 p.m. EDT

Is the bipartisan infrastructure deal already in danger of falling apart? The panel also discussed voting rights & Derek Chauvin’s sentencing for the murder of George Floyd.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Bipartisanship, but on shaky ground.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We have a deal.

MS. ALCINDOR: A bipartisan agreement on infrastructure, but can the president unify his party around a second bill with more Democratic priorities?

SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) What this is really about is an effort for the federal government to take over the way we conduct elections.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Senate Republicans block debate on voting rights as Democrats fume over the filibuster. Plus, the White House focuses on gun violence and surging crime while lawmakers reach a deal on police reform, and former police officer Derek Chauvin is sentenced for the murder of George Floyd, next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.

MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. President Biden has been in office for 156 days, and on Thursday he made a rare appearance on the White House driveway and stood with a bipartisan group of senators. They announced a deal for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I think it’s really important. We’ve all agreed that none of us got what we – all that we wanted. I clearly didn’t get all I wanted. They gave more than I think maybe they were inclined to give in the first place.

MS. ALCINDOR: But he and other Democrats insist they will only pass this bipartisan package if a separate second bill is also passed. That second infrastructure bill would include Democratic priorities aimed at families, children, and communities. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is already criticizing Democrats and President Biden for their plan.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) Less than two hours after publicly commending our colleagues and actually endorsing the bipartisan agreement, the president took the extraordinary step of threatening to veto it.

MS. ALCINDOR: Still, Democrats remain divided on what to actually put in that bigger reconciliation package. With Washington so divided, is this – is this deal even possible, and what comes next for the president’s agenda?

Tonight we’re happy for the first time in more than a year we have four reporters at the table to discuss all of this: Zolan Kanno-Youngs, White House correspondent for The New York Times; Eva McKend, congressional correspondent for Spectrum News; Mike Memoli, White House correspondent for NBC News; and Jake Sherman, founder of Punchbowl News, a political newsletter.

Jake, I have to start with you. I was waiting to talk to you all day because this is a wild day. Bipartisanship is so rare in D.C. What’s the latest on this? And it seems like things are really, really shaky.

JAKE SHERMAN: I’m happy to be back in the studio also. Yes, things are very shaky. Joe Biden basically went out and said – he had been saying he was going to link these two packages, this hard infrastructure package and this so-called human infrastructure package, which is the care economy and things of that nature, but he never said that both have to pass for him to sign the hard infrastructure package, the bipartisan package. Republicans feel like they’re being used. The White House says, well, they’re being sensitive, they don’t – you know, they’re just finding an excuse to get to no. Maybe so, but if Joe Biden wants this bipartisanship, if he wants this bill, he’s going to have to find a way to get these Republicans back in line. As we sit here right now, they’re not in line. I think they’re – I think it’s the – I think this deal is threatening to come apart.

MS. ALCINDOR: And I want to stick with you because Democrats are not on the same page. I’m thinking of trying to get Manchin and Senator Bernie Sanders. What’s the likelihood that Democrats will be able to agree with this and come up with something?

MR. SHERMAN: Well, I think this entire episode shows that the coalition is very fragile on both sides, right? You’re trying to keep together a Democratic Party that ranges from Joe Manchin to Bernie Sanders, as you said, and a Republican Party which actually doesn’t want the piece that Bernie Sanders is passing – and frankly, neither does Joe Manchin, a lot of people think – so it’s a coalition that I think is really fragile. I think we’re entering what is going to be the most frenzied and frantic legislative period in the last decade, I really do. The next three months are just going to be absolutely wild.

MS. ALCINDOR: Eva, I want to come to you. Talk to me a little bit about what your reporting tells you about where Republicans stand, especially as you even have Senator Lindsey Graham telling Politico Democrats’ plans are extortion. What are you hearing?

EVA MCKEND: Well, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell immediately pushed back against this. He does not like this idea of a dual track, like Jake said. He feels like Republicans are getting worked, and he has the power to make or break this. Republicans have historically fallen in line when McConnell speaks, so we’ll have to see how it goes. Lots of political calculations here. We know that McConnell has spent the last several months talking about the importance of the filibuster and maintaining the filibuster. Now, what better way to preserve that Senate rule and not put more pressure on moderate Democrats than to show that the Senate can work together in a bipartisan fashion? So he has to make – he has to ultimately decide what he wants to do here, and if he does blow up this infrastructure deal more pressure is going to be on moderate Democrats to eliminate the filibuster.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Mike, we call you the Biden whisperer. I know maybe you don’t like that, but it’s such a great title for you.

MIKE MEMOLI: It’s good.

MS. ALCINDOR: President Biden, where does he stand on this? How is the White House going to try to massage all of this and possibly get this done?

MR. MEMOLI: Well, Yamiche, first let’s just step back and think about the last two weeks for President Biden. This is everything he’s wanted to do as president of the United States for his entire career: conducting diplomacy at the highest levels overseas, and now deal-making like he used to in the Senate. The White House clearly today wanted to ride that wave a little longer. They keep touting sort of this historic deal that he, in their view, helped broker, but now the reality sets in, and you saw the president laying the groundwork for this yesterday. First he went out to the sticks outside the West Wing entrance; we never see that.

MS. ALCINDOR: We never see that.

MR. MEMOLI: That was about supporting the Republicans who have been showing good faith in this process and to buck them up, especially those moderates as well. Then, in the East Room where we were standing next to each other, he was speaking to his fellow Democrats to say, essentially, trust the process. Remember, he said my party is rational. That was a little bit of optimism, I think. What we’ve seen in this – in this process here, at the front end all the leverage was on the side of the moderates, Manchin and Sinema most conspicuously, but the longer this bipartisan effort dragged through into June the progressives started to really flex their, you know, agenda here and get concerned that they were going to lose out on the opportunity to do big things, and so the president would not have made this commitment of this dual track if he didn’t – if the progressives’ leverage wasn’t sufficient enough to do that, and so now Ricchetti has been the operator in the Hill to try to keep the moderates in line. Now it’s Ron Klain, who has been the voice for progressives, the sort of liaison; he’s got to work the outside groups and keep the progressives onboard if they can keep this through September, which is realistically, this legislative process, how long it’s going to take.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Zolan, you’re nodding your head; I want to bring you in. President Biden, he talked about the idea that American democracy needs to work for us to compete with China. When you zoom out and think about what’s on the line, not just for this one bill but for his legacy and his agenda, what is – what’s your reporting tell you?

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS: Well, I mean, of course let’s look at President Biden’s statements and what he introduced as soon as he came into office, right? I mean, he came in and said I will be focusing on rebuilding roads around America, I will be responsible for improving infrastructure, I will also be responsible for, you know, implementing some of the measures that we’ve seen on climate change, right – and on that topic, climate change being left out also of this latest deal. So, you know, we’ve heard these comparisons to FDR. We know that the president cares about those comparisons as well. There’s a risk here when you have this two-track – is he actually going to be able to implement not only your traditional infrastructure, but also some of the policies that he has touted when it comes to climate change, when it comes to human infrastructure, investing in health workers as well? He made a lot of promises early on in those first couple of weeks and there is – there is a risk here if he’s actually going to accomplish that.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Jake, how is the president going to lean in on this kind of personal style of politics? How is he regarded on Capitol Hill? Can he fix this sort of shaky ground?

MR. SHERMAN: Well, the president’s aides have done a really good job so far – Steve Ricchetti, Louisa Terrell, and Brian Deese, his three – three of his top aides. I think the president tends to overstate his relationships on Capitol Hill. That might not be a popular thing to say. Congress has changed a lot since 2008 and 2009, when he was in the Senate before he went to the White House. I do think he has relationships, but remember, I mean, the progressive wing of the party was always skeptical of him and was always a little bit worried that he would do what he’s doing now – (laughs) – which is cut this big deal with Republicans. And now we’re seeing him do that. So I’ve just – I think that he needs to – he needs to say the right thing to everybody and say nothing publicly. That is what he needs to do to get this done. And I know that sounds – I know that sounds crude and it sounds unrealistic. But that’s what maybe he needs to get done.

MS. ALCINDOR: And while there was bipartisanship on infrastructure, on voting rights partisanship lives on. Tuesday Republicans blocked an effort to open debate on the For the People Act. This is a bill that Democrats say was aimed at protecting and expanding voting rights. Here’s what both parties’ leaders said as the bill failed in a 50-50 vote.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) Well, the biggest lie being told in American politics in recent weeks has been that the states are involved in a systematic effort to suppress the vote.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) Once again, Senate Republicans have signed their names in the ledger of history along Donald – alongside Donald Trump, the big lie, and voter suppression, to their enduring disgrace.

MS. ALCINDOR: And today the Justice Department took action on voting rights. It filed a lawsuit against Georgia for its new restrictive voting laws. Zolan, from my understanding you were at the DOJ presser. Tell me a little bit about what this first major action means and how active do we think the DOJ is going to be? I’ve been talking to activists who tell me they wanted to see this happen, along with President Biden nominating judges. So what’s going on?

MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: The takeaway you should have from here is if we’re not going to see action in Congress when it comes – action from the Democrats when it comes to trying to prevent or defend against what we’re seeing the Republicans do in places like Georgia, the White House is going to step up and – or, excuse me – the administration is going to step up and have the Justice Department go and take on that role. You should take the lawsuit today that was filed by the Justice Department as a first step. That’s basically what the indication should be.

We do have localities throughout the country where Republicans are passing legislation that will restrict the ability for specifically minority communities to vote. We have seen that. And here you have the White House saying, well, if we’re not going to have action in Congress, the Justice Department is going to go forward. I thought it was interesting how at the White House briefing today also Jen Psaki was asked, so, did the White House communicate at all with the Justice Department on this? They’re going to have to defend against some of those questions as well, especially as they continue to argue on plenty of other topics that this Justice Department is completely independent, unlike the Trump administration.

MS. ALCINDOR: And, Eva, when we talk about voting rights, basically we’re talking about the filibuster, right? Talk to me a little bit about why those two things are so linked and the idea that moderate Democrats might be feeling even more and more pressure as the days and months go on.

MS. MCKEND: Well, the For the People Act and the John Lewis voting bill both are going to be dead in the Senate as long as the filibuster remains. They do not have the 60 votes to advance this bill. You know, Democrats tried to show a good face and say that they’re going to fight on, but legislatively there is no path forward for these bills. The next step comes with the Rules Committee. Senator Klobuchar says she’s going to take this on the road and have public hearings in Georgia about voting rights. We know that progressives just yesterday outside of the Hart Senate Building there was, like, a For the People Act block party. So that is how they’re going to continue to turn up the pressure on this issue. But I don’t see a path forward legislatively as long as this filibuster remains in place.

MR. SHERMAN: I agree. Yeah, I completely agree.

MS. ALCINDOR: I was going to say, you’re nodding your head. Please jump in.

MR. SHERMAN: You’re 100 percent right. But a few – here’s the dichotomy here. Schumer, Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, is saying – he said a couple weeks ago: There is no bipartisan solution for this. His words, not mine. That means, ipso facto, that means you need to blow up the filibuster. If you cannot get a bipartisan compromise to get 60 votes and you want to pass it, you can’t just snap your fingers and make it law. You have to pass it – you have to blow up the filibuster. But there aren’t the votes to blow up the filibuster.

So I mean, we’re just – we’re in this kind of holding pattern on what has been a top priority not only for Biden, but for Democratic candidates across the country. This is not an unpopular view. I mean, there are basically two Democrats – Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin – who are holding this up – holding this priority up. This is something that everyone ran on, so, I mean –

MS. MCKEND: But both of New Hampshire’s senators as well indicating that they don’t really have the appetite to –

MR. SHERMAN: They have some discomfort, yeah. Yeah, totally. Yeah.

MS. MCKEND: – to blow up the filibuster. So it’s not only Manchin and Sinema, there are a lot – Schumer has a lot more –

MR. SHERMAN: Agreed, agreed.

MS. MCKEND: – problems in the Senate besides them.

MS. ALCINDOR: That’s a great point, Eva, because I think we talk a lot about Sinema and Manchin, but when you talk behind the scenes they say, oh, Democrats have a lot more problems here, which of course makes me want to talk to you, Mike. (Laughter.) When we were in the East Room I questioned the president – last – this week, I should say, about voting and what this deal would mean for his agenda on other items. He made some news and said he’s going to be now traveling around the country doing voting rights. Talk to me a little bit about how he’s going to deal with this.

MR. MEMOLI: Thank you for asking that question yesterday, because that was the most extensive comments we’ve heard from this president about voting rights in some time. There was a lot of pressure on him ahead of that vote in the Senate this week. Why isn’t the White House doing more to build public pressure? Joe Biden’s philosophy for policymaking, for legislating, everyone remembers him during the campaign talking about he wants to find consensus and work in a bipartisan fashion whenever possible. People forget what was the second part of what the president, then the candidate, said on the campaign, is if you can’t do that, then you go out and beat them. And what the president revealed yesterday was the go out and beat them part of his philosophy.

This is a voting issue, voting itself, in the 2022 midterm elections to this president. And that’s why, even when they announced Vice President Harris’ role in voting rights, remember how they structured her role. It was outside pressure. Then it was advocacy groups. Then it was Capitol Hill itself. So they always see this as you need to change hearts and minds. You need to show that there are consequences for Republicans for what they’re doing. And that’s why what the president’s going to be doing, hitting the road to talk about this, is important.

MS. ALCINDOR: And I want to turn now to Minneapolis. Today former Police Officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison for the murder of George Floyd. Here’s Floyd’s nephew reacting.

BRANDON WILLIAMS: (From video.) We got justice, but not enough justice. When you think about George being murdered in cold blood with a knee on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, execution style, in broad daylight, 22 ½ years is not enough.

MS. ALCINDOR: This comes as lawmakers reach an agreement on the framework for police reform more than a year after Floyd’s murder. It also comes as President Biden is working to deal with the rise in gun violence and homicide rates. On Wednesday he laid out his plan for community policing and gun control.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) That means more police officers, more nurses, more counselors, more social workers, more community violence interrupters to help resolve issues before they escalate into crimes.

MS. ALCINDOR: I want to come to you, Zolan, first about the Chauvin sentencing. This was a long sentence, but there are people – of course, the family included – who were disappointed in this sentence. What does it mean, do you think, for the justice system in our country that we – what we saw today?

MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: Look, I mean, if you go out into communities and if you – if you talk to criminal justice advocates, if you go out into communities of color, it’s very easy to understand why one conviction, one sentence, would not provide the satisfaction that maybe – well, I haven’t met anybody who expected any satisfaction from this. But it’s hard to believe that you would find that. And you heard that from folks after this sentencing as well. And I believe there was another activist there who also said: Look, until we stop seeing so many of these incidents, stop seeing so many of these killings really in the news, how really can we tout any sort of progress here?

Now, this is a good – that’s a good way to segue too, because another thing that was brought up are the, you know, efforts being made in terms of police reform right now. You saw quickly after this sentence an effort to galvanize support and turn it into a way to try and push Congress to pass legislation on police reform. I find it interesting that that comes around the same time that the president has also rolled out pretty much an anti-crime strategy, right? And I mean, that is a reflection of some of shifting dynamics that we’re seeing in the Democratic Party as well. I know there were a lot of talks about defunding the police – which is still very relevant if you go and talk to certain individuals and certain members of the Democratic Party. But with the recent mayoral race in New York City, as well as –

MS. ALCINDOR: A wake-up call for a lot of people.

MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, look, you have Eric Adams, former officer as well, who appealed to folks and said: There is rising crime here. Just to put that in context, though, 20 years ago there was about 2,626 murders in New York. I believe there were roughly 400 last year. There are rising homicides in the city – in cities. It does matter to various communities, including communities of color. But it’s not too hard to understand why when you see a police officer who’s sworn to protect you shooting you that you would also find that to also be quite relevant.

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, that’s why we brought you to the table, because you just broke down so much. And I think people really need to understand these crime rates in context.

Eva, I want to come to you. The Floyd family’s talking about wanting to see police reform. There was this press release so far on this police framework. What do we know about what actually could get done here?

MS MCKEND: Well, it’s been delayed and delayed. They set up several deadlines for the past several weeks and have kept having to push past those deadlines. It kind of feels like a flight that you know is going to be cancelled – (laughter) – and you keep getting that delay, after delay, after delay. That’s what this debate over police reform looks like. I will say, though, they’re all serious people debating this bill. Congresswoman Karen Bass, Senator Booker, Senator Scott, these are all people that don’t just want to do this for show; they genuinely want a deal. But we will have to see. It seems as though the sticking points remain the same – this issue of qualified immunity, how much legal protection officers should be entitled to. Those all seem the same, and I think ultimately – I think ultimately there isn’t going to be that much wiggle room on that. It’s going to be what progressives will agree to. Will they allow for a police registry? Will they allow some of these other reforms to move forward without qualified immunity? Some of the members of the squad have already said absolutely not, it’s qualified immunity or nothing, but we’ll have to see.

MR. SHERMAN: I just want to say one other thing.

MS. ALCINDOR: Want to jump in? Yeah, go ahead.

MR. SHERMAN: I mean, this is the most – to put it in context, though, this is the most sweeping reform of police laws in our lifetime, and I just – I agree with you, it’s going to be a tough pill to swallow. I just think that even if there’s some change on qualified immunity, a lot of people are going to find it really hard to oppose this just because, like you said, these are the most serious people in the room and putting forth something that’s just really sweeping.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Mike, I want to come to you. What does the Biden administration say about this spike in crime? What do they believe is going into this, and how are they kind of balancing this as we think about the president’s past and his history on crime?

MR. MEMOLI: The White House was very clear that they attribute a lot of this spike in violence – which they carefully point out, they say, has happened over the last 18 months, which extends beyond his time in office – to the pandemic. And that’s why one of the things he did this week was free up COVID relief money to allow police departments, states, and local governments to fund the police, to add and to provide more training, other resources for local law enforcement. If you look at the two constituencies who have been the bedrock of Joe Biden’s political support since he ran for office for the first time in 1970, it is African American voters and it is suburban voters. Look at the political geography of Delaware; it’s New Castle County, so suburban, and Wilmington, heavily African American. That’s what made him the nominee and made him president as well. And so tracing his trajectory on crime issues specifically over time very closely traces the sort of mainstream of the Democratic Party specifically on this. That’s why the 1994 crime bill was a bit more regressive in today’s views, but that was the view of the time, and the policy he rolled out this week is very much a message to the party against defund the police but also including a lot of resources for African Americans.

MS. ALCINDOR: And also today, Vice President Kamala Harris was at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. Republicans have criticized her for not going sooner. The visit comes as several Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, plan to visit the border next week. Zolan, this is – this is your beat – you’re a White House reporter – but we all know that you are very much plugged into national security and the border. Why is she going? What’s this going to – what’s this visit going to do for her?

MR. KANNO-YOUNGS: The vice president, if she had her choice, the reporting would show, would rather be talking about anticorruption in Central America, her trip to Central America, the investments that the U.S. is making into women’s businesses in Guatemala and Mexico City. But unfortunately, because she had a stumble when asked whether or not she was going to visit the border during that trip, that now dominates the entire news cycle. It completely derailed all of the work that they set out to do at that point. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that former President Donald Trump is visiting the border next week with – and he’s going to be alongside Texas Governor Greg Abbott as well, who has pledged to also continue building a border wall that came to symbolize an immigration agenda that very much still lingers over this administration, right, when they were caught off-guard earlier this year by a surge of unaccompanied minors and they did not have a shelter capacity that was fully ready to support that, or you could even go to now the fact that the administration is still implementing a Trump-era pandemic emergency rule that has effectively ended asylum for many of the families that the vice president spoke about there at the border today. So if you want a takeaway of this visit, I really think what it is is the – it shows that President Trump might be out of the office; his administration’s immigration agenda very much still having an impact both on this administration and on the ground at the border.

MS. ALCINDOR: In the 30 seconds that we have left, Jake, I want to come to you. The politics of immigration are not going away. Zolan just hit on it. What’s at play here?

MR. SHERMAN: Everyone knows what an immigration deal would look like on Capitol Hill. Everyone knows how to fix this problem, broadly speaking. No one has the political courage to do it, and that’s what it all comes down to. We were talking about this before the show, it’s just – it’s the most clear-cut set of issues, clear-cut set of solutions that no one has the political courage to solve.

MS. MCKEND: And even though she did go to the border, you know, Leader McCarthy today criticizing her still, so it’s not like she got any points from Republicans.

MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah, and – well, thank you all. That’s all the time we have tonight. Thank you to Zolan, Eva, Mike, Jake for joining me at the table in person.

And before we go tonight, we are praying for the families impacted by the tragic building collapse in the South Florida town of Surfside as an intense search-and-rescue effort continues. Dozens and dozens of people remain missing. My heart breaks for them.

And thank you for joining us. Make sure to watch the Washington Week Extra. Catch it live at 8:30 Eastern on YouTube, Facebook, and our website.

I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.


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