Fumbled infrastructure rollout leaves Republicans asking who's really in charge at White House

Republicans are "trying to figure out who to negotiate with at the White House — because apparently, it's not the President United States," said Missouri Republican Rep. Jason Smith.

"What Republicans have come to understand is that this White House has handlers that control, apparently, the president's actions and decisions," said Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) in an interview with Just the News.

Smith, the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, was referring specifically to President Biden's botched rollout of the long-awaited bipartisan infrastructure plan last week.

Last weekend was a scramble for Biden to walk back a comment he made in front of the White House Thursday to announce agreement on a bipartisan framework for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.

"If this is the only thing that comes to me, I'm not signing it," said the president, standing next to a working group of Democrat and Republican senators who were surprised to hear him condition his support for the deal they had just negotiated on passage of a budget-busting Democrat spending bill. That bill, which Democrats hope to pass without Republican votes in the Senate using budget reconciliation, will potentially include much of the spending that moderate Republicans (and Democrats) worked to cut from the bipartisan framework.

"It was a surprise to say the least that those two got linked, and I'm glad they've now been de-linked," said Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the president's unexpected announcement an "extortion" effort by Democrats.

The promise of passing the bills simultaneously would potentially appease members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party who feel the bipartisan infrastructure package is too small. However, that plan would evidently drive away some key Republican votes needed for the infrastructure bill to pass.

Describing Biden's initial statement as "the worst bait and switch tactic that you could see from a politician," Rep. Smith said: "Most Republicans have whiplash on Biden's infrastructure plan ... and, um, that Saturday statement was a classic 'cleanup on aisle four.'" 

Part of a statement of clarification from the White House released on Saturday read: "At a press conference after announcing the bipartisan agreement, I indicated that I would refuse to sign the infrastructure bill if it was sent to me without my Families Plan and other priorities, including clean energy. That statement understandably upset some Republicans, who do not see the two plans as linked; they are hoping to defeat my Families Plan — and do not want their support for the infrastructure plan to be seen as aiding passage of the Families Plan. My comments also created the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to, which was certainly not my intent." 

Despite the clarification, the politics of passing the infrastructure package have only just begun, and appear to be growing messier and more complex by the day.

Republicans are wondering if negotiating with the White House in good faith is worth the time, effort and political risk, given Biden's loose, at best, handle on the situation. And Democratic leadership must consider the realistic chances of passing the infrastructure bill without support from progressives, if leadership wants to pass the bill at all. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is reportedly not bullish on the package and isn't likely to let it migrate through her chamber unaccompanied by a massive spending bill.

House Republicans are hoping to portray the mess as a failure of the unified, Democrat-led government in Washington — a strategy that may prevail, if the White House cannot find a way to wrangle all critical players around the infrastructure bill.

What was meant to be a shining moment of victory for the Biden agenda may have inadvertently illustrated how little control over the party the president actually has. 

Republicans, meanwhile, are "trying to figure out who to negotiate with at the White House — because apparently, it's not the President United States," said Smith. 

"I think the American people look at this and wonder who's in charge."