A bipartisan group of senators negotiating a massive infrastructure bill were on the verge of blowing another self-imposed deadline Monday as the Senate’s top Democrat threatened to keep the chamber in session over the weekend to advance legislation that stands at the top of President Joe Biden’s agenda.
For weeks, the 10 Republicans and Democrats hashing out a roughly $1 trillion package to revitalize the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and internet connections have insisted that the group was close to finalizing a deal with the White House. In voting to block floor consideration of the package in the Senate last week, GOP senators crafting the deal argued that negotiators were close and that a broad infrastructure agreement was within reach.
But as lawmakers returned to Washington on Monday, their posture was similar to that of previous weeks: Although they appeared to be tantalizingly close, negotiators had yet to finalize a deal. The difference is that the patience from the highest levels of the Democratic Party was wearing thin.
“We have reached a critical moment. The bipartisan group of senators has had nearly five weeks of negotiation,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday. Signaling that the Senate could stay in session into the weekend, cutting into its upcoming summer break to get the proposal done, Schumer added, “It’s time for everyone to get to yes and produce an outcome for the American people.”
The dynamic reflected the tension between the desire among some in both parties, including Biden, to claim a bipartisan achievement, and the reluctance of many Democrats to wait too long for an agreement they fear may not materialize.
The last-minute complications, people involved in the negotiations say, come in part because powerful Senate chairmen are now offering input on a package whose policies encompass multiple committees. Republicans also said Senate Democrats and administration officials are reopening negotiations on matters that the GOP believed had been settled, although their Democratic counterparts dispute that.
“They’ve added some new challenges to the list,” Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the chief GOP negotiator, said of the White House.
As they had done the previous weekends, senators, aides and White House officials toiled for hours to finalize the infrastructure package. The group was also continuing to discuss the package Monday evening. Republicans including Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah initially hoped to finalize a more robust blueprint as soon as Monday so that the long-stalled Senate floor debate could finally start.
But when the day began Monday, senators were still sorting through lingering disputes over how to spend billions of dollars to upgrade the country’s railways, for example, along with thorny policy issues around broadband spending – including efforts by Democrats to use the powers of government to ensure internet access is affordable.
The two sides were also struggling to come to terms on the formula for doling out money to improve the nation’s highways, as well as the exact funding available for water improvements, although one Democratic negotiator said Monday evening that the matter had been resolved. And lawmakers remained at odds over provisions sought by Democrats that aimed to ensure any federal spending to improve infrastructure would pay workers prevailing wages to do the job.
Four people familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private, fragile and fast-moving Senate talks, described the policy spats. One Democratic official said that the party’s negotiators, in coordination with the administration, presented a counteroffer late Sunday addressing these and other issues. A Republican official familiar with the talks, however, described the Democratic proposal on Monday morning as discouraging, saying it was an effort to reopen “numerous” issues that the group had already settled.
“If this is going to be successful, the White House will need to show more flexibility as Republicans have done and listen to the members of the group that produced this framework,” the GOP official said.
A second Democratic official familiar with the talks disputed some of the Republican assertions, saying there were “never full agreements on the outstanding items that have been listed.”
With tensions spilling into public view in this way, the standoff threatened to cast a pall over the 10 Democrats and Republicans who have been laboring for months on the roughly $1 trillion outline to improve the nation’s basic systems. If the deal collapses, it would cause political headaches for the White House in particular, after Biden and his top aides invested considerable time and attention to working with Congress in pursuit of a bipartisan deal.
The president, however, was not ready to admit defeat. “I’m always optimistic,” Biden told reporters Monday during an event in the Rose Garden.
His top spokeswoman, White House press secretary Jen Psaki, said the administration remained “confident” about reaching an agreement, though she also emphasized that “time is not endless.”
“We are certainly on a timeline here, and we will work closely with Leader Schumer to get it done,” said Psaki, who also said Biden had worked the phones over the weekend while at his home in Wilmington, Del.
Schumer still aims to complete work on the infrastructure proposal before lawmakers depart for their planned August recess. The majority leader also intends to advance a second, roughly $3.5 trillion package that encompasses the elements of Biden’s economic agenda that are left out of the bipartisan deal, and would likely attract no Republican support.
Schumer sought to take the first step last week, moving to hold a key procedural vote to begin debate on the bipartisan infrastructure package. But his early gambit failed, as Republicans voted against proceeding on the grounds that the infrastructure bill hadn’t even been written.
In its defeat, Romney joined about a dozen Republicans in pledging to supply the necessary votes to commence the chamber’s work on infrastructure as soon as this week. Lawmakers involved in the talks, including Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., tried to sound an optimistic note about their prospects this weekend as they raced to meet their informal goal of releasing substantive text by Monday.
“We’re down to the last couple of items, and I think you’re going to see a bill Monday afternoon,” Warner said.
But a swift resolution seemed increasingly unlikely as the Senate returned to work, and Democrats and Republicans openly resumed swiping at each other.
One key rift that emerged Monday focused on water spending. The early infrastructure outline produced by lawmakers and the White House in June pegged spending on the nation’s water systems at $55 billion, but Democrats including Sen. Thomas Carper of Delaware have sought additional money to fund existing federal programs and improvements such as the replacement of lead pipes.
Democrats say Republicans agreed to boosting the water spending and that GOP lawmakers including Romney later reneged on the deal, essentially shortchanging water spending by about $15 billion. Romney’s top aides, however, dismissed that account as “laughably false,” saying that spending was never on the table in the discussions. The senator’s aides also charged that Democrats instead had violated the initial bipartisan agreement that the bipartisan group of senators had reached in June.
Republican and Democratic negotiators also remain locked in a dispute over the ratio of highway to transit funding, according to aides familiar with the negotiations. In the past, the federal government has given transit systems roughly one dollar for every four that highways receive; both sides have accused the other of trying to alter that convention in the current talks.
Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, the top GOP member on the Banking Committee, which sets transit policy, said Sunday that Republicans had offered a 35% bump in regular transit spending plus billions more as part of the bipartisan infrastructure talks, even though transit agencies have already received $70 billion in coronavirus-related aid. Toomey said Democrats had rejected that offer.
“Nobody’s talking about cutting transit,” Toomey said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The question is, how many tens of billions of dollars on top of the huge increase that they have already gotten is sufficient?”
A Republican aide familiar with the negotiations said the 35% figure applied to the largest pot of transit funds, but it leaves unresolved any increase to a separate capital grant program for transit.