Frustration builds as infrastructure talks drag

Tempers are starting to flare on both sides of the aisle as bipartisan infrastructure talks drag on and negotiators face the prospect of missing an informal self-imposed deadline of Monday for getting a deal.

Some Democrats are accusing Republicans of slow-walking the negotiations and reopening negotiating items that were believed to be solved.

Republicans say Democrats are being unreasonable in some of their demands, such as an insistence on tens of billions of dollars in new funding for transit and broad authority for local governments to decide how to spend infrastructure funds.

A bipartisan group of Senate negotiators who have been working with the White House for months to fill out a $1.2 trillion, eight-year spending proposal say they’re on track to get it done next week, but frustrations are starting to mount as a final deal eludes them.

“They have not been serious about transit dollars,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, who is leading the battle for more federal money for public transit, one of the biggest obstacles to getting a deal. 

“We’ve offered to split the difference and they don’t seem to want to do that,” he said.

“It's not we who're stalling,” Brown added.

Brown accused Republicans of drawing out the talks to derail President Biden’s agenda, which Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) says will move as a bipartisan infrastructure package and a budget reconciliation bill planned for the fall.

Schumer said he will set up the reconciliation process by scheduling a vote on a budget resolution after the bipartisan infrastructure bill passes the Senate. But negotiators haven’t finished work on their bipartisan framework, holding the whole process up.

“If they continue to slow-walk, which is what they’re doing, we’ve got to move ahead,” Brown said. “I remember during the Affordable Care Act [debate], they slow-walked for four months. That’s why we didn’t get Medicare at 55, that’s why we didn’t get a public option.”

His Banking Committee has jurisdiction over transit. And unlike other Senate committee, such as the Environment and Public Work Committee, the Commerce Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, it had not already reached agreement on key infrastructure priorities in its domain.

Brown said there is strong skepticism among Democrats about whether Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will allow any major bipartisan infrastructure deal to pass the Senate, which would be a major win for President Biden.

In a sign of wearing patience, Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), the lead Republican negotiator, suggested dropping the transit funding element from the deal altogether, something that would spark an angry backlash from Democrats.

“Transit funding has not yet been resolved. That’s important, but if we can’t resolve it then we could leave that out. I hope not,” he said.

“Democrats frankly are not being reasonable in their requests right now. We have had a very generous offer out there that provides a significant increase in funding over the next five years,” he added.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) threatened to oppose the bipartisan deal after he saw Portman's comment. 

“A bill that fails to adequately include transit will not have my support,” he warned. 

The other key player in the fight over transit funding is Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the top-ranking Republican on the Banking panel, who has balked at an additional $48.5 billion in funding, which he believes would skew the traditional allocation between highway and transit spending.

Toomey isn’t happy that the bipartisan group is taking over an issue that’s in his panel’s jurisdiction and has called for the Banking Committee to holding its own markup.

This has put Portman in the tricky position of having to mediate an argument between two colleagues, Brown and Toomey, on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, who aren’t even in the bipartisan infrastructure group he formed.

Yet Portman insisted Thursday the negotiations are “very close” to a deal and predicted there would be enough GOP votes to begin debate on infrastructure legislation next week.

Some Democrats in the bipartisan group have privately complained to colleagues that their Republican counterparts are reopening some issues that they thought had been sewn up.

“We know it’s a deliberate strategy of delay, we all know that,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to comment on discussions within the Democratic caucus.

The senator said Democratic members of the group have complained about previously agreed upon issues getting relitigated. The most high-profile example was when Republicans backed off an agreement to increase funding for the IRS as a strategy to raise between $80 billion and $100 billion in new revenue.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, on Thursday accused negotiators of backtracking on their promise to keep in place the water infrastructure funding he set up through the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act, which passed the Senate 89-2 in May.

“We’ve been assured that our legislation would be funded, would be fully funded, and now we’re hearing it may be moved around,” he told reporters.

Carper warned: “I’m going to withhold my support until they’re fully funded.”

A Republican source familiar with the negotiations, however, argued it’s unreasonable for Democrats to demand that all of their water infrastructure priorities be funded up-front, noting the much of the money will come from the annual appropriations process.

Negotiators are also still trying to resolve differences over how to regulate new funding for broadband internet expansion, but that seems to be less of an obstacle than transit.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) a member of the core group of negotiators, said there’s a discussion “around some of the questions of administering the program” and “how you set up the low-cost service.”

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said Democrats “love the idea” of giving local governments more authority over broadband regulation.

The last-minute brinksmanship is raising doubts about whether the negotiators can wrap up their work by Monday, the goal that several of them have set.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday reiterated his plan to pass both a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a Senate budget resolution that would set the stage for a reconciliation bill later in the fall. That reconciliation package is expected to cost $3.5 trillion and include elements of Biden’s agenda that don’t have GOP support.

“I have every intention of passing both major infrastructure packages — the bipartisan infrastructure framework and a budget resolution with reconciliation instructions — before we leave for the August recess. I laid out that precise schedule both publicly and privately and I intend to stick with it,” he said on the Senate floor.

The majority leader suffered a setback for his schedule Wednesday when every Senate Republican voted to block a motion to begin the infrastructure debate. A group of 11 Republicans have signed a letter to Schumer pledging to vote to begin the debate next week if the bipartisan infrastructure deal comes together over the weekend.

Thune on Thursday voiced skepticism that there would be 60 votes to move ahead if the legislation isn’t fully drafted.

“My guess is for a lot of our members, if they haven’t had a chance to review it [and] it’s not truly reduced to legislative text yet, probably won’t vote to get on the bill,” he said, although he noted only Republican votes would be needed to start the infrastructure bill if all 50 Democrats vote to proceed.

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