Lawmakers brave more than just cold at White House signing ceremony

Death threats follow some GOP supporters of bipartisan package

President Joe Biden, surrounded by lawmakers and members of his Cabinet, signs the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act during a ceremony Monday on the South Lawn of the White House.  (Kenny Holston/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden, surrounded by lawmakers and members of his Cabinet, signs the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act during a ceremony Monday on the South Lawn of the White House. (Kenny Holston/Getty Images)
Posted November 15, 2021 at 5:37pm

President Joe Biden on Monday thanked Sen. Rob Portman for his work in crafting the bipartisan infrastructure law, calling him a “hell of a good guy.” But in a sign of the times, Biden quipped about the Ohio Republican: “I know I’m not hurting you, Rob, because you’re not running again.”

Portman, during remarks ahead of the president’s arrival on the White House South Lawn for a signing ceremony in chilly weather with what the White House said was more than 800 attendees, took a moment to try to praise Donald Trump, even as the former president and his supporters have criticized Republicans who cast “yes” votes for the infrastructure measure.

“Every president and every Congress of modern times has proposed major infrastructure improvements — we all have,” Portman said. “By making infrastructure a real priority in his administration, President Trump furthered the discussion and helped Republicans like me think differently about the positive impact of investments for infrastructure.”

Left unsaid was that Trump did not get anything passed even under unified GOP control of Congress and the White House — and that Trump has consistently berated Republicans who worked on the current infrastructure package and has stood by while some of those Republicans have received death threats for doing so.

Defying Trump

Trump has called for primary challenges to a slew of GOP lawmakers who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Over the weekend, he criticized Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted for the measure and has been touting its benefits across his home state of Kentucky but did not attend the signing.

“Based on the fact that the Old Crow convinced many Republican Senators to vote for the Bill, greatly jeopardizing their chance of winning re-election, and that he led the way, he should go to the signing and put up with the scorn from Great Republican Patriots that are already lambasting him,” Trump said in a statement Saturday. “Our Country is being destroyed while Mitch McConnell gives lifelines to those who are destroying it!”

Among the Republican lawmakers whose attendance at Monday’s ceremony was confirmed early?

Those who are retiring, like Portman and New York Rep. Tom Reed. Those who have already experienced Trump’s wrath, like Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Susan Collins of Maine, both of whom voted to convict the former president at his February impeachment trial on charges related to incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

And then there were lawmakers such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, two Alaska Republicans who don’t seem particularly afraid of Trump.

Murkowski, who announced last week that she would run for reelection, is facing a challenge from Trump-endorsed Kelly Tshibaka in the state’s new open primary that will see the top four vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election.

Some outspoken GOP supporters of the infrastructure bill skipped the signing ceremony. Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, who was not at the White House on Monday, has received multiple threatening calls.

Lindsey Graham, President Trump’s favorite top Republican in the Senate, supported this bill when it passed 69-30. We need roads and highways, let me tell you,” Upton told CNN on Sunday. “This was a bipartisan plan. It needed to happen. And I’m glad that we got it past the finish line.”

A popular measure

The question for Democratic and Republican supporters alike is: When construction gets underway, does the law have coattails that can overcome partisan attacks from the likes of Trump?

The infrastructure deal has proved to be more popular than Biden himself in recent weeks, so it is possible that House members and senators who opted to accept the invitation for Monday’s signing ceremony may get more of a boost from the legislation than from the man who signed it into law.

Just 42 percent of respondents approved of the president’s job performance in a Monmouth University survey released last week, but some 65 percent supported the bipartisan infrastructure measure. Those results largely track with a Washington Post-ABC News survey released over the weekend.

Monday’s signing gives the White House and supportive members in both parties something they can sell across the country, and as White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki put it Monday, it’s easier to sell a bipartisan agreement than a package that’s still being debated in Congress.

“There’s no question that being able to go out there and talk about and sell a package that actually exists and we know the details of is easier than the alternative,” Psaki told reporters. “We can’t predict for you what that will mean, two months, six months from now, but there’s no question that … is a more positive means of communicating from here than litigating every up and down of the sausage-making in Congress.”

Biden will visit a New Hampshire bridge in dire need of repair to tout the infrastructure law Tuesday, with another event scheduled for Wednesday in Detroit. Vice President Kamala Harris and members of the Cabinet will also be out in force.

Supportive lawmakers will also tout the benefits back home, from Collins talking about rural broadband access in Maine to lead Senate Democratic negotiator Kyrsten Sinema promoting benefits for Arizona.

“Our legislation represents the substantive policy changes that some have said are no longer possible in today’s Senate. How many times have we heard that bipartisanship isn’t possible anymore — or that important policy can only happen on a party line? Our legislation proves the opposite — and the senators who negotiated this legislation show how to get things done,” Sinema said Monday at the White House.

The only friction between a Republican and Democrat at the event appeared to be the good-natured kind. Young, the irascible dean of the House, who has served in Congress since 1973, when Biden was also just starting his first term as a senator, joked to the president about his long-windedness in a moment caught on a hot mic: “We were wondering when you were going to stop. We damn near froze to death.”