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Biden taps Cabinet members to push infrastructure plan

President Joe Biden speaks during the Cabinet meeting

President Joe Biden speaks during the Cabinet meeting in the East Room of the White House Thursday.   Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden convened his first Cabinet meeting on Thursday, tapping five members, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, with leading the effort to sell his $2 trillion infrastructure plan to the American public.

"While most of the Cabinet will have a role in helping shape and press the jobs plan, today I’m announcing that I’m asking five Cabinet members to take special responsibility to explain the plan to the American public," Biden said before listing Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Buttigieg.

A day after Biden delivered his initial pitch for a massive eight-year, $2 trillion spending plan aimed at modernizing the nation’s roads, bridges and major transportation hubs, the president and top White House officials sought to generate early support among lawmakers for the plan, which Biden hopes to pass through Congress this summer.

White House chief of staff Ron Klain, in a virtual interview with Politico, said "there’s some hope" for a bipartisan package, and expressed a willingness to hear from a small coalition of moderate House Democrats, including Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who have said they will not support any package that does not repeal the $10,000 state and local tax deduction cap enacted in 2017 under President Donald Trump.

"We want to engage the members from that part of the country, for whom this is really a major issue," Klain said. "We understand the concern. I want to hear from them how they would pay for this tax deduction. I want to hear [from] them how it fits into the overall package."

Suozzi, in a phone interview, said he has been in discussions with the White House about setting up a meeting, but no details have been finalized.

"I'm sure there's going to be a lot of back and forth between now and then," Suozzi said of congressional negotiations over the package. "The good news is that SALT is now part of the conversation."

Klain, asked about getting Republican support for the plan, said, "These are national needs, and as the president has said, people have to decide if they’re going to deliver or divide, and we intend to deliver. And when I talk to Republicans, I see that they want to deliver, too."

Republican leaders including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have so far balked at backing a package that calls for a corporate tax increase to pay for the expansive list of projects, such as increasing access to broadband internet and developing a national network of electric vehicle-charging stations.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, addressing the early pushback by Republicans, told reporters at the daily press briefing, "There is long history of agreement on infrastructure, the need to invest, the need to take steps to be more competitive with China; we feel there are a lot of areas of agreement."

Deputy White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, in a separate briefing with regional reporters, said if the package is passed, the White House expects money for local projects will be doled out via a competitive grant process, where states and municipalities would need to apply for funding.

"Throughout this process we look forward to working with a broad coalition of members of Congress to gather their input and ideas to determine the path forward," Jean-Pierre said.

Biden addressed reporters briefly at the top of the Cabinet meeting, but the remainder of the two-hour gathering was behind closed doors.

Though the Cabinet typically meets in the West Wing’s Cabinet Room, Thursday’s meeting was held in the spacious East Room to allow for social distancing between the 25 cabinet members and aides on hand. All wore masks.

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