Washington (AFP) – Senators and the White House are engaged in intense negotiations to salvage a bipartisan infrastructure deal, as pressure mounts on all sides to end talks and show progress on President Joe Biden’s top priority.
Despite weeks of closed-door discussions, senators from the bipartisan group missed a Monday deadline to agree on a nearly trillion-dollar package. Instead, they have faced grave roadblocks over how much will be spent on public transportation and water infrastructure and whether unused spending on roads, bridges, broadband and other projects is required to meet federal wage requirements for workers. They are also at odds over relying on COVID-19 money to aid pay for it.
Republican negotiator Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who has taken the lead in key talks with a top White House aide, insisted the bipartisan group was “making progress.”
“It’s going in the right direction,” Portman told reporters at the Capitol. “It’s a big, complicated bill.”
Biden spoke in a similarly confident tone, telling reporters at the White House that he remains confident about a compromise.
This is a crucial week following more than a month of tortuous negotiations since Biden and the bipartisan group first celebrated the lines of a bipartisan agreement of nearly $1 trillion in June, and senators have been warned that they may remain in this weekend’s session to finish the work.
The White House wants a bipartisan agreement for this first stage, prior Democrats go on their own to address the broader priorities in a larger $3.5 trillion budget plan on the surface. A recent Associated Press-NORC poll showed that 8 in 10 Americans favor increased infrastructure spending, and the current package could be a political triumph for all parties as lawmakers try to show voters that Washington can act. Securing the bipartisan bill is also significant for some centrist Democrats prior engaging in a broader project.
But as talks persevere, anxious Democrats, who have scant control of the House and Senate, confront a timetable for work on what could be the most significant legislation in years. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wants to make progress on both packages prior the August recess, and has asked senators to prepare for the Saturday or Sunday session.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden himself “worked on the phones all weekend,” and the administration was encouraged by the progress. But Psaki acknowledged that “time is not endless.”
Adding to the mix, Donald Trump issued a statement Monday criticizing Senate Republicans for their handling of infrastructure Democrats, though it’s unclear what effect it will have. The previous president had failed in the infrastructure deal while in office.
It’s time for everyone to get to ‘yes,’ Schumer said as he opened the Senate.
Schumer said Trump “supports the failure of our entire political system” while Democrats “support a deal.”
The bipartisan package includes about $600 billion in unused spending on public works projects, with wide Republican and Democratic support for many of the proposed ideas.
However, there was not much to show on Monday following a tough weekend of talks, putting the deal at risk of stalling.
Democrats and the White House sent what they called a “global” presentation to Republicans on remaining issues late Sunday, according to a Democratic aide close to the talks and granted anonymity to discuss them.
But Republicans rejected the ideas, saying the unused proposal attempted to reopen issues that had already been resolved, according to a GOP aide who granted anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, said it was time for Biden to be more engaged. “I think it’s essential that the president signal very strongly that he wants a bipartisan package,” she said.
Several senators said Steve Ricchetti, a top Biden aide, was chosen for confront-to-confront talks as Portman sent the information to other senators in the group.
“There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” said Democratic Senator John Tester of Montana.
While much of the disagreement has been over the amount of spending on each category, labor issues have also emerged as a flash point.
Democrats are insisting on prevailing wage requirements, not only for existing public works programs but also for building unused roads, bridges, broadband and other infrastructure, according to another Republican who was granted anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Meanwhile, transit funding has been a source of stubborn contention for the former several days.
Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, the top Republican on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which oversees public transportation, has raised questions about how much transportation funding will be increased. He cited, in part, previous federal COVID-19 relief money that was already earmarked for public transportation.
Democrats and public transportation advocates don’t want spending to drop more than what was normally a federal formula of about 80% for highways and 20% for transportation. They see expanded public transportation systems as the key to easing traffic congestion and combating climate change.
Psaki previously said that transit funding “is obviously very significant to the president — the ‘Amtrak president,’ as we might call it.”
Senators also appear to be still debating funds for public water works and removal of lead pipes following Senator Mitt Romney, of Utah, raised questions about the amount.
Nor was it resolved how to pay for the bipartisan package following Democrats rejected a plan to bring in money by increasing gas tax payments at the pump and Republicans scrapped a plan to boost the IRS to go following tax offenders.
Funding could come from redirecting coronavirus relief assist, reversing the Trump-era drug discount and other flows. The final deal is likely to run into political trouble if it is not paid for in packed when the Congressional Budget Office assesses the details.
The final package would need the support of 60 senators in the 50-50 Senate to advance following the disruption — meaning at fewest 10 Republicans on the side of each Democrat. A test vote final week failed along partisan lines as Republicans sought more time to negotiate.
Meanwhile, Democrats are preparing a larger $3.5 trillion package, which will go beyond public works to include child concern centers, family tax credits and other priorities. It is being considered under budget rules that allow 51 senators to pass in a divided Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris competent to burst the tie. This package will be paid for by increasing the corporate tax rate and the tax rate for Americans who earn more than $400,000 a year.
Associated Press writers Hope Yen and Josh Book contributed to this report.