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On infrastructure, Biden eyes Plan B (and perhaps Plan C)

Biden went to rather extraordinary lengths to present offers designed to make Republicans happy. The GOP didn't respond in kind. So now what?

It was nearly four months ago when President Joe Biden first invited a bipartisan group of senators to the Oval Office for infrastructure talks. At the time, much of Congress was still focused on a pending COVID relief package, but the White House was eager to get the ball rolling on the next big legislative initiative.

In the four months that followed, Biden went to rather extraordinary lengths to present offers designed to make Republicans happy. When GOP senators told the president he'd have to slash the price tag of his plan, he did. When GOP senators also insisted that Biden craft a proposal that left Trump-era tax rates alone, he did that, too.

But when Republicans didn't respond in kind, the process met its inevitable demise.

President Joe Biden's infrastructure talks with Republicans collapsed Tuesday, the lead GOP negotiator said. "I spoke with the president this afternoon, and he ended our infrastructure negotiations," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said in a statement.

Much of the coverage that followed characterized this as both a failure and a major setback, but there's a better way of looking at these developments: Biden could've wasted even more time with Capito, spinning his wheels for no reason, but by bringing pointless talks to a close, the president is now free to move forward in more constructive directions.

For example, there's a different group of senators who've quietly been working on a rival infrastructure package, and Biden quickly reached out to some of the participants late yesterday. The details of their rival plan remain murky, and it's far from finished. NBC News' report noted, for example, "There doesn't appear to be agreement among the group on the overall topline number, as well as how to pay for the bill."

Yeah, but other than that....

While that process unfolds, Democratic leaders continue to eye the safety valve that could deliver real results if/when the bipartisan efforts fall short:

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats are still focused on the process known as reconciliation to ensure passage of President Biden's infrastructure bill as the president's efforts to find common ground with Republicans remained stalled. "We all know as a caucus we will not be able to do all the things that the country needs in a totally bipartisan way," he said. "So at the same time, we are pursuing the pursuit of reconciliation."

Late last week, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said in reference to the reconciliation process, "No, I don't think you should. I really don't." The conservative Democrat did not, however, categorically rule out the possibility, declaring that he'd choose failure over governance, so Senate leaders are carefully proceeding with the fallback plan.

But one of yesterday's most interesting comments came, oddly enough, from Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who suggested a possible infrastructure deal in which senators "perhaps not look at identifying a payfor specifically." The South Dakotan reportedly added that the economic benefits would likely help offset the cost of the investments.

In other words, given that one of the major sticking points between Democrats and Republicans is how to pay for an important priority, Rounds hinted that they could resolve the problem by not worrying too much about how to pay for the important priority.

Watch this space.