Bipartisan infrastructure pitch gains steam on Capitol Hill as Biden weighs in from Europe
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators sketching out an infrastructure proposal is preparing to expand their base of support on Capitol Hill, even as they continue to haggle over how to pay for billions of dollars in new spending in line with President Joe Biden's vision for a massive overhaul of the nation's public works system.
The initial framework, written by the likes of Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah; Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.; Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and seven other senators, falls far short of the sweeping infrastructure proposal that Biden has pitched yet aims to try to satisfy the president's hunger for bipartisanship.
But there were signs of momentum in favor of the group's pitch on Wednesday, as several senators leaving a closed-door meeting on the infrastructure plan said they were drafting a new statement of support that could include an even broader group of lawmakers. That, senators say, is an attempt to prove publicly that this is a proposal that can win broad approval on Capitol Hill, even as an increasingly agitated progressive coalition is urging Biden to ditch his bipartisanship efforts and move onto Democratic-only efforts that would likely be much more expansive.
"We know that on both sides we're going to have detractors to this, and so I think it's going to be important that as we secure support from Republicans, we secure the same from Democrats," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said. "So that's why we've been kind of doing the whole Noah's Ark approach."
Negotiations have continued on the president's top domestic policy initiative even as Biden has been overseas in Europe.
"I honestly haven't seen it," Biden told reporters before leaving Geneva, speaking of the bipartisan proposal. "I don't know what the details are. I know that my chief of staff thinks there's some room."
Democratic senators who have written the bipartisan plan will meet with Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president; National Economic Council director Brian Deese, and legislative affairs director Louisa Terrell later Wednesday to update the administration on their efforts, according to a White House official.
The bipartisan Senate plan calls for about $974 billion in infrastructure spending over five years, according to people speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to reveal the details. This amounts to roughly $579 billion in new spending, in addition to some redirected spending from other programs. Biden had originally requested more than $2 trillion in new infrastructure spending, but White House officials had signaled they were willing to consider a package closer to $1 trillion.
Administration officials have indicated both publicly and to Capitol Hill that Biden is willing to let negotiations play out a little longer but not indefinitely — while many conservatives will not be eager to accept much new federal spending, if any, on massive public works projects. Meanwhile, liberals led by the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are pushing Democrats to act on their own to pass on a significant, generational infrastructure package. Sanders and other Democrats are meeting Wednesday to discuss a path for them to advance some of the elements left out of a bipartisan deal potentially without GOP support.
"You know unfortunately, we see people on both sides who throw arrows," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said. "I think we have to keep going forward and trying to do what we think is the right thing to get something done for the country."
The first meeting on Wednesday included a wider array of lawmakers beyond the initial 10 Democrats and Republicans who had prepared the bipartisan compromise.
Among those newly in the room were Republican Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and Todd Young of Indiana, who exited offering new praise of the proposal. Other Democrats who attended the meeting who haven't initially endorsed the plan included Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo.; Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.; and Richard Durbin, D-Ill. Durbin and Thune are both key because they are the respective vote-counters for their parties in the Senate.
Senate negotiators also expanded their efforts to include the House, inviting Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J.; and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., the leaders of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. After the meeting, Portman said senators plan to brief the fuller House caucus as soon as Friday, reflecting their strategy of "going out in concentric circles now and bringing in more and more people."
The House bloc had joined a similar coalition of largely moderate-leaning members last year in helping to break another logjam over more than $900 billion in stalled coronavirus aid. After the meeting Wednesday afternoon, Gottheimer and Fitzpatrick said their roughly $1 trillion, eight-year blueprint is similar to the five-year, similarly sized package that the Senate is assembling.
"This can get across the finish line," Gottheimer said.
But some disagreements still separated the two parties' lawmakers in negotiations — namely how, exactly, to pay for an infrastructure package without violating each side's political red lines. Democrats have pledged they won't raise taxes on Americans making under $400,000 from seeing a tax increase, and Republicans have refused to budge in opposing any tax increase that unwinds the cuts they adopted in 2017.
In a bid to broker a compromise, Senate negotiators proposed a package of so-called pay-fors that change the gas tax, tying it to inflation, while imposing similar, new charges on the owners of electric vehicles. Democrats, however, have balked at the idea, arguing it violates Biden's 2020 campaign promise.
Portman on Wednesday defended the plan, stressing it is not a "new tax." But he said that lawmakers are "need to work with them on coming up with alternatives."
The developments came as Senate Democrats on Wednesday prepared to chart their own course on trillions of dollars in additional spending on infrastructure and the party's vast additional economic priorities.
For days, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has said Democrats are on two tracks, seeking to broker an infrastructure deal with Republicans while at the same time preparing a package that his party can advance on its own using a process known as reconciliation. With only a simple majority required for passage, rather than 60, the procedural move could allow lawmakers to adopt other elements of Biden's jobs plan that fall out of an infrastructure deal, such as heightened spending to combat climate change.
Schumer said they also intend to advance the spending in Biden's so-called "families plan," while other Democrats are targeting overhauls of health care and prescription drug programs.
Democrats are set to discuss the scope of their reconciliation package on Wednesday afternoon, hoping to craft what Schumer has called a "unity budget." In doing so, many Democrats have made clear they would not support any bipartisan infrastructure deal emerging in the Senate unless they could move their robust reconciliation package essentially in tandem.
"This is the moment that we have to start addressing issues that have been neglected for very, for a very long time," Sanders said ahead of the meeting.
The Democratic strategy aims to quell a potential revolt among the left, who have grown impatient with the length of the talks — and antsy about the trade-offs made in the name of securing GOP support. But Republicans expressed skepticism about the timing or the nature of the deal that Democrats seek.
"It would be impossible to get any sort of pre-agreement on reconciliation before striking this package," Young said.