WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden on Wednesday met with the top four leaders of Congress, using the Oval Office meeting to urge both sides to take swift action on his $4 trillion infrastructure plan as both parties remain split on the size and cost of the proposal
The meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy marked Biden’s first joint meeting with the "Big Four" since taking office.
"What the bottom line here is, we're going to see whether we can reach some consensus on a compromise on moving forward," Biden told reporters before the start of the roughly two-hour session. "We're going to talk a lot about infrastructure today to see if there's any way we can reach a compromise that gets the people's work done and is within the bounds of everyone agreeing."
McConnell (R-Ky.) and McCarthy (R-Calif.), speaking to reporters outside of the West Wing after the meeting, described the meeting as productive, but doubled down on their opposition to Biden’s proposal to pay for the plan through a series of corporate tax hikes and tax increases on the top one-percent of income earners.
"We're not interested in reopening the 2017 tax bill," McConnell said of the Trump era tax law. "We both made that clear to the President. That's our red line."
Senate Republicans last month proposed a $568 billion infrastructure plan which they have proposed paying for through user fees such as gas taxes and tolls. Asked about the plan, Biden last month described it as too small, and said it would be a "no-go" if Republicans only offered a plan that covered a fraction of his proposal.
Biden’s two-part $4 trillion infrastructure plan calls for improvements to both traditional infrastructure such as roads and bridges, but also calls for funding an expansion of education and health care programs, such as providing access to universal Pre-K for toddlers and expanding access to senior care programs.
McCarthy said "there’s an opportunity that we can work together on infrastructure," but called on Biden to narrow his definition of infrastructure.
"One thing I brought up to the President, we first have to start with a definition of what is infrastructure. That's not home health, that's roads, bridges, highways, airports, broadband. Those are the places we could find common ground to work together," McCarthy said.
Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a Senate floor speech before the meeting, said lawmakers "cannot be small-minded" about the scope of an infrastructure plan.
"We must be big and bold to meet the changes in the world, the rapid changes that are occurring in the world," Schumer said.
After the meeting, Schumer said both sets of leaders agreed to continue talking and "would explore the places where we could agree on and come to a bipartisan agreement on those."
Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaking to reporters after the meeting said the meeting "took us a few steps forward," but she acknowledged there remained a gap between both sides on the scale of an infrastructure package. Pelosi said she would continue to push for passage of Biden’s plan by July 4.
Asked about McConnell's position on Trump's tax cut, Pelosi said: "He considers it sacrosanct. We have a different set of values."
Biden’s top advisers have set a soft target of reaching a bipartisan deal by Memorial Day, before deciding their next moves.
Schumer has raised the possibility of setting a Senate vote for Biden’s proposal using the budget reconciliation process, which would allow the measure to pass the chamber by a simple majority vote instead of the current 60 vote threshold for most legislation.
Even that maneuver does not guarantee the 50-50 split Senate will pass Biden’s plan. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West. Va.) a critical swing vote, has raised concerns about the proposal and its impact on his coal-friendly state. In the House, some lawmakers from Blue states including Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) have said they will vote against any measure that does not repeal the Trump-era cap on state and local tax deductions.
Biden, who has been holding bipartisan talks with small groups of lawmakers in the Oval Office for the past month, is set to meet Thursday with six Senate Republicans as part of the ongoing effort to rally support for his plan.
The White House, in a readout of the meeting, said Biden "emphasized that whatever differences exist between the parties, the real competition is between the United States and the rest of the world."