President Joe Biden now turns to a puzzle almost as thankless as negotiating with Vladimir Putin -- pushing his stalled agenda through a deadlocked Congress.
Air Force One delivered Biden back to Washington after his talks with the Russian President that capped his European tour. He now gets to wrestle with the limits of a 50-50 Senate, Republican obstruction and splits between moderate and progressive Democrats that threaten his ambitious plans to rebuild the nation's physical infrastructure, tackle the climate crisis and expand the social safety net.
After successfully enacting a massive Covid-19 rescue bill and rolling out an unprecedented vaccination drive, the President is now under increasing pressure to satisfy Democratic hopes of transformative reform in a fast narrowing window for action.
Biden may also be contending with the crosswinds of the mounting pressure from progressives on Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to retire, so that Biden would be in position to name a replacement before Democrats potentially lose their majorities in the midterms.
The White House rejected assessments that Biden's agenda was in trouble when the President left for Europe last week. And while the political equation in Washington is challenging, the President's hopes of solving his legislative Rubik's cube may have improved slightly while he was abroad.
There were signs of movement, for instance, as the latest bipartisan group trying to hash out a deal on infrastructure met Wednesday on Capitol Hill. Members and leaders, however, acknowledged there is still a long way to go as they try to find consensus on how to pay for the improvements. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters the group has done a good job trying to address the concerns of both parties but said "a lot of details ... need to be filled in."
In another potentially positive sign for the President, conservative West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, a major impediment to progressive dreams of a transformational presidency, is circulating changes and proposed additions to two voting rights bills. Those bills are seen by Democrats as the best hope of countering scores of statehouse measures drawn up by Republicans that make it harder to vote and easier to rig the results of elections.
But the glimmers of hope for the Democratic agenda pale in comparison to Biden's task of keeping his own party united, and dealing with the reality that Republicans can put the brakes on his plans because of the Senate requirement for a supermajority of 60 votes to pass major legislation.
To pass an infrastructure bill for instance, the President will first have to secure a deal among 20 bipartisan senators now looking for common ground. Any deal will be well short of the original $2 trillion bill he had originally envisaged and will center on traditional projects like roads and bridges while removing controversial social spending he had packed into his original blueprint. Another issue is how to pay for the package, with Republicans refusing to scale back tax cuts introduced in the 2017 law passed by then-President Donald Trump.
Progressives demand action on their priorities
Complicating Biden's challenge, progressive Democrats are skeptical that any Senate compromise will satisfy their priorities. And they warn that they would not agree to such a pared back compromise without a commitment to pass items like home health care and climate change mitigation measures, which were in the original infrastructure bill, through the Senate by using a simple majority device used for budget legislation known as reconciliation.
"We've already wasted three weeks of bipartisan negotiations only for them to lead nowhere," Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington told reporters on a press call.
"I have been saying for weeks that we are not going to be able to get the votes for a smaller package unless there is simultaneous movement of an agreed-upon reconciliation package that includes everything."
Democratic Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley of Oregon similarly said this week that they will not support a bipartisan infrastructure package unless they have a guarantee that climate action will be included in a separate reconciliation package.
Markey said "it's time" to move beyond bipartisan infrastructure negotiations and for Democrats to "go our own way." He underscored the urgency of getting something done before the August recess, a key deadline that is looming for Biden.
"We shouldn't leave here until we get it done. We cannot let Republican calls for bipartisanship deny the American people the climate action that they have been demanding," he said. "There has to be a guarantee, an absolute unbreakable guarantee that climate is going to be at the center of any infrastructure deal which we cut."
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has already started a dual track process by conferring with members of the Budget Committee about the package that Democrats would try to advance on their own through reconciliation. It remains unclear whether moderate Democrats like Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema would support such an approach, which would require agreement among all 50 Democrats.
Schumer emerged from a meeting with Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee Wednesday night calling it a "great first discussion." Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said the first votes could come in July and that the group discussed including climate and immigration provisions.
Kaine acknowledged that it will be difficult to build consensus among all 50 Democrats: "You can't say we're unified because we haven't discussed all the details and there are 50 people."
Biden appeared to indicate, however, that he believes that a two-track process could unlock both a new infrastructure bill as well as progressive goals.
Biden hopes to bring 'bookends' together
"I know that Schumer and Nancy have moved forward on a reconciliation provision as well. So I'm still hoping we could put together the two bookends here," the President said in Geneva, also referring to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
A small group of Democrats senators also met with White House officials to brief them on the bipartisan framework for the infrastructure plan, and Manchin said the group hoped to release more details next week.
Steven J. Ricchetti, a counselor to Biden, said the discussion was "very cordial and productive." But Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said the group is trying to navigate "lots of preconditions from our Republican friends" as well as those of the President, "so it makes it challenging."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell previewed the challenges in winning GOP support on Tuesday when he laid out his requirements for a deal: "Put me down as listening and hopeful that somehow, some way, we'll be able to move forward with an infrastructure bill that does two things."
McConnell has a choice to make. There are a number of Republicans who want an infrastructure deal to show their constituents they can get something done ahead of midterm elections. But given that a compromise would be a huge accomplishment for a President who has made unity and bipartisanship an unlikely theme of his administration in fraught partisan times, Republicans may ultimately be unwilling to give Biden the win.
McConnell has always been 'No'
Throughout the early months of Biden's presidency, Democrats have maintained a fragile peace within their fractured party even as progressives clamor for Biden to go bigger and bolder in tackling the climate crisis and addressing income inequality, which he attempted to do in part with some of his proposals to improve the lot of home health care workers in the broad, initial infrastructure bill
Progressives are also fighting for two pieces of legislation -- the "For the People Act" and the "John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act" -- that they see as crucial to reversing state laws based on Trump's lies about voter fraud in the last election which in many cases discriminate against minority voters and introduce partisan control of elections. Some moderate Democrats are uneasy with the scope of the bills. And Republicans are adamantly opposed. That means they cannot pass in their current form without an effort to abolish the 60-vote filibuster threshold, a step Manchin for instance says he will refuse to take.
But on Wednesday, Manchin also circulated changes and proposed additions to both the "For the People" act and "John Lewis Voting Rights Act" -- that he could live with as Democrats strategize about how they can overcome the steep hurdle of getting 60 votes on a voting bill. Manchin has also been reaching out to GOP senators, CNN's Manu Raju reported Wednesday, holding a Zoom meeting Monday night with Republicans to see if they could reach consensus, a source familiar with the talks told CNN.
Still, signs of optimism in an institution as polarized as Congress are often only the prelude to disappointment. And given the narrowing window for Biden to capitalize on the apex of his power and influence with midterm elections looming next year, and with only a few weeks before lawmakers go home for the summer, the pieces need to come together soon.
Republicans are looking ahead to the 2022 elections, promising a blockade of Biden's agenda. Wyoming GOP Sen. John Barrasso noted at an event this week that McConnell came under criticism during Barack Obama's presidency by saying that he wanted to make sure Obama was "a one-term president."
"I want to make Joe Biden a one-half-term president," Barrasso said in an appearance before The Ripon Society. "And I want to do that by making sure they no longer have House, Senate, White House."
Biden's dwindling moment for fundamental reform was also underscored this week when McConnell refused to guarantee that he would confirm a Supreme Court nominee if the GOP wins back control of the US Senate.
When the President was asked about McConnell's comments during his foreign trip, his answer encapsulated the shadow that Republican obstruction cast over his entire agenda.
"Mitch has been nothing but 'No' for a long time and I'm sure he means exactly what he says, but we'll see."