Senate Republicans remain well below President Biden’s stated funding goal on a new infrastructure bill in their latest counteroffer as efforts to agree on a bipartisan plan slowly muddle forward.
Negotiators led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., announced an offer Thursday morning of $928 billion over eight years, saying it stuck to “core infrastructure” and was a “serious effort to try and reach a bipartisan agreement.” However, only $257 billion of that proposal is new money, much of the rest coming from funds already appropriated under the COVID-19 relief legislation passed earlier this year. Biden’s initial ask for the American Jobs Plan was $2.3 trillion.
"Senate Republicans continue to negotiate in good faith," Capito said. "There is a real hunger for bipartisanship in the United States Senate."
Biden told reporters he had a brief but good conversation with Capito on Thursday morning and planned to meet again next week, adding, "I told her we have to finish this very soon."
In a longer statement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki expressed concerns about provisions missing from the GOP proposal as well as the use of COVID-19 relief funding.
"At first review, we note several constructive additions to the group’s previous proposals, including on roads, bridges and rail," said Psaki. "At the same time, we remain concerned that their plan still provides no substantial new funds for critical job-creating needs, such as fixing our veterans’ hospitals, building modern rail systems, repairing our transit systems, removing dangerous lead pipes and powering America’s leadership in a job-creating clean-energy economy, among other things."
Senate Republicans first offered a $568 billion plan in April, with the president’s team saying it included just $225 billion in new money. On Friday, the White House announced it had cut the proposed size of its plan to $1.7 trillion in what Psaki called “the art of seeking common ground” — a public lowering of the plan’s size that didn’t occur during the late-winter negotiations on pandemic relief when Senate Democrats were united behind the White House’s proposal.
Republicans remained against the White House’s revised deal, and it’s unclear where moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona stand on it. In a Friday statement, a Capito aide said that the counteroffer was "well above the range of what can pass Congress with bipartisan support" and that "the groups seem further apart after two meetings with the White House staff than they were after one meeting with President Biden."
“The last counteroffer that came from the Republicans just came up $50 billion,” Psaki said at a briefing on Monday. “Our concessions went 10 times as far as theirs, so the ball is in their court. We are awaiting their counterproposal. We would welcome that. We’re eager to engage and even have them down here to the White House once we see that counterproposal.”
The sides are apart on more than size. There is still haggling over what exactly “infrastructure” means, as Biden hopes to expand beyond roads and bridges to paying for broadband internet expansion in rural areas and caretakers for older Americans. They’re also on opposite ends of how to pay for it: Biden wants to raise taxes on corporations and Americans making more than $400,000, a path opposed by Republicans, whose tax cut for the wealthy and businesses was the signature legislative achievement of the Trump administration. The GOP has instead suggested reappropriating existing spending along with user fees like gas taxes, which Biden opposes.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Manchin and Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, were working on a backup proposal to the Capito plan that would strip out a number of Biden’s initial provisions like electric vehicles and elder care. It’s unclear whether that plan could reach the 60 votes needed to pass an inevitable filibuster in the 50-50 chamber.
Wary Democrats have said they fear that the process will drag out like the 2009 negotiations over health care, when Republicans were engaged for months before offering zero votes in favor of the Affordable Care Act. Democratic leaders in Congress have threatened to advance the infrastructure bill under a complicated process called reconciliation, which allows bills tied to the budget to be passed with 50 Senate votes.
“Let’s not waste time trading the necessary scope and scale of this critical infrastructure package for congressional Republican votes that have yet to and will never materialize,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in a statement Friday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had set an initial goal of July 4 for passage of the bill, with Congress’s traditional August recess looming in a few months. On Tuesday morning, CNN and Punchbowl News reported that negotiations could continue into the fall. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer stated that “it has always been our plan, regardless of the vehicle, to work on an infrastructure bill in July. And that's our plan, to move forward in July.”
The protracted negotiations are not without potential political benefit: Manchin has said he wants the deal to be bipartisan, so the White House’s effort will allow him and other moderates in both chambers to point to a good-faith attempt even if Democrats move forward alone.
During the campaign, Biden pitched his ability to work across the aisle, even earning scorn from his then-primary rival and now vice president Kamala Harris after he touted his past work with segregationists in the Senate. As president-elect, Biden told grassroots activists in December that they were “going to be surprised” with how Republicans would come around once Donald Trump was out of office.
For the COVID-19 relief package that passed in March, Biden was willing to go it alone after Republicans dragged their feet and didn’t put forth a serious counteroffer and Senate Democrats offered unanimous support. Republican senators visited the White House for a meeting, but with their counteroffer never rising above a third of what was outlined in the proposed pandemic relief plan, Democrats moved on with the $1.9 trillion bill. When it eventually passed Congress, it did so with zero GOP votes.
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