Bipartisan infrastructure talks on life support

Bipartisan infrastructure talks between Senate Republicans and the White House are on life support, with the two sides $1.5 trillion apart on a final price tag and little agreement on how to pay for it.

Senate Democrats say lead Republican negotiator Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) has another two weeks — maybe three at the most — to show significant progress before Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) starts moving ahead without GOP support.

Capito and White House officials acknowledge they’re not close to a deal.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN on Monday “there is still a lot of daylight between us,” while adding that the administration wants to keep the talks going.

The White House says it is now up to Republicans to make a counter proposal to the offer administration officials laid out last week when they reduced Biden's initial $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal to $1.7 trillion by slashing some investments and proposing that certain programs be pursued in other legislative talks.

“The ball is in the Republicans’ court,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday. “We are awaiting their counter proposal. We would welcome that. We are eager to engage and even have them down here to the White House once we see that counter proposal.”

White House advisers say Biden genuinely wants a bipartisan agreement, especially given that he ran as a unity candidate who could work across the aisle to get things done.

But the White House and Republicans remain at odds over the size of the package, how to pay for it, and even on what constitutes infrastructure.

Capito and five other Senate Republicans who are negotiating with the White House plan to meet Tuesday morning to discuss next steps. The GOP senators have declined to say how much higher they’re willing to go after Capito’s $568 billion offer last month.

“I’m getting ready to meet with my fellow senators that are on the negotiating team to see what direction they want to go. I’m not ready to call it quits, I can tell you that,” she said.

Capito said she was disappointed by the $1.7 trillion counter offer Friday from the White House.

“Yeah, I was,” she said, adding that President Biden had left her more hopeful of a compromise when he met earlier with Republicans face-to-face at the White House.

“We had been in the office with the president and he had expressed parameters that we made our offer to,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Capito said last week’s counteroffer from the administration “is well above the range of what can pass Congress with bipartisan support.”

Senate Republicans say a familiar dynamic is playing out in the infrastructure negotiations. Much like the ultimately unsuccessful talks over Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, Republicans say White House officials are hampering progress.

“We were closer after we met with Biden than we were after meeting with the White House team,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), one of the negotiators. “The agreement we had with the president, the White House staff walked back.”

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said talks are “temporarily at a stalemate” and that they were more productive when GOP senators were speaking directly to the president.

Senate Democrats say the clock is ticking on bipartisan efforts.

“We’re getting down to decision time, we can’t put this over indefinitely. So I hope they can reach an agreement, they’re still pretty far apart,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Monday. 

“I haven’t given up on bipartisanship but we’re running out of time,” he added.

Democrats could attempt to deliver a bipartisan infrastructure win for Biden by bringing a $303 billion surface transportation authorization bill to the floor. 

Capito and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) on Saturday released the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act, legislation that’s largely modeled on the $287 billion highway bill that passed the Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously in 2019.

The new measure provides 34 percent more money than the five-year highway authorization bill passed in 2015 but would still be significantly less than the $568 billion infrastructure roadmap Capito unveiled on April 22 — and far less than Biden's initial $2.3 trillion proposal.

Still, a big advantage to passing the surface transportation bill is that it would allow states to move ahead with road construction projects this year. Passage of the authorization bill also would allow states to issue bonds to finance those projects, which will remain in limbo without congressional action.

Capito on Monday said the $303 billion transportation bill could wind up standing in for the bipartisan deal on infrastructure that Senate Republicans and White House officials have so far failed to work out.

“Yes! In my view that’s the anchor to this whole thing. It’s the biggest spending over a five-year period of time, and that should be a part of it. There’s much more money in there than five years ago,” Capito said.

The Environment and Public Works Committee will mark up the legislation on Wednesday and Capito confidently predicted there “will be” a matching proposal to pay for it coming out of the Finance Committee. 

Disagreement over how to pay for the 2019 transportation bill eventually derailed it, even though the measure passed out of committee in a 26-0 vote. 

A Senate Democratic aide on Monday said the talks between Senate Republicans and the White House would continue for now, though the prospects for a deal appear diminished compared to a week ago.

“I don’t think they’re over yet, I think they’re going to keep going for another couple weeks. We have the Carper-Capito agreement in hand. That’s good,” the aide said.

The White House has said officials want to see progress by Memorial Day, but it's unclear whether Biden will look past the negotiations and signal support for Democrats to go it alone if there isn't movement toward a compromise by the end of this week.

In late-June or July, Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can move to advance infrastructure through the budget reconciliation process. That would allow them to pass a $2 trillion to $3 trillion measure with a simple-majority vote and bypass a GOP filibuster, assuming sufficient Democratic support in each chamber.

Senate progressives are running out of patience with the bipartisan talks.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Friday said Republicans “have shown no willingness whatsoever to negotiate in good faith” and urged his colleagues not to “waste time trading the necessary scope and scale” of an infrastructure bill for “Republican votes that have yet to and will never materialize.” 

Other Democrats are urging Biden not to agree to a deal below his $1.7 trillion counteroffer, an amount that was $550 billion below his initial proposal. 

“I’m beginning to struggle because I think there are things they’re doing in the Biden infrastructure plan which are essential to economic recovery, whether it’s broadband or the electric grid. There are so many elements that I think the Republicans are overlooking,” Durbin said.