After 1st round fails, where do infrastructure talks stand?

A bipartisan group is meeting behind the scenes to negotiate a new deal.

June 9, 2021, 6:16 PM

Almost as soon as infrastructure talks died, they were resurrected under new leadership.

While President Joe Biden jets off to Europe to attend to international matters, a coalition of Senate Democrats and Republicans are huddled up at the Capitol charting what they hope will be a new path forward on infrastructure.

New negotiations bring a whole new host of questions about how a deal on what has become a politically divisive package might be struck and what that deal might look like.

Wait. Aren't infrastructure talks over?

Think again. They're not over, they've just moved to a new set of negotiators.

The White House announced Tuesday that Biden was ending talks on infrastructure with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who had been deputized by Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to lead negotiations.

The White House and Capito negotiated for weeks trying to find a compromise but fell short on multiple fronts. They never reached an agreement on how to fund such a massive bill or how broad the bill should be, and even after weeks of readjustments, they remained hundreds of billions of dollars apart on overall cost.

According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, Capito's proposal failed to "meet the essential needs of our country to restore our roads and bridges, prepare us for our clean energy future and create jobs." According to Capito, the White House "moved the goalposts on me a couple of times and they just decided to walk away."

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito arrives at a Senate Appropriations Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 9, 2021.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

But as those talks faltered, the White House signaled it was putting its faith in the efforts of a separate bipartisan group.

The White House announced Tuesday that Biden had spoken with Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Az.

"He urged them to continue their work with other Democrats and Republicans to develop a bipartisan proposal that he hopes will be more responsive to the country's pressing infrastructure needs."

Very quickly, the focus on Capitol Hill shifted to the so-far-behind-the-scenes work of a group that all three of those Senators are a part of.

Who's involved in this round of negotiations?

Ten senators, five from each side of the aisle, huddled in a basement hideaway of the Capitol building and worked over pizzas brought in by staff until close to 9 p.m. Tuesday night, attempting to hash out details of a new infrastructure proposal.

This core group includes Sinema, Manchin and Cassidy as well as Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Susan Collins, R-Maine, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Jon Tester, R-Mont., Mark Warner, D-Va., Jeanne Shaheen, R-N.H., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

Members of this group have been working together behind the scenes for several weeks to craft a backup plan in case talks between the White House and Capito faltered, but they're just now coming into focus as infrastructure discussions round a new corner.

They're currently workshopping their pitch with a broader coalition of consensus-minded members on both sides.

What's this new bipartisan group proposing?

Details of the bipartisan proposal have yet to be released, in part because senators involved in the negotiations say they're still discussing among themselves what their package might include.

They've not yet reached a top-line figure, and multiple members of the bipartisan negotiating group declined to speculate on what it could ultimately be.

They say they expect their bill to fund "core" infrastructure priorities, like roads, bridges, ports and waterways. It won't focus on some of the broader "human infrastructure" items, like child care, in-home care and funding for school buildings, that Biden included in his initial package.

How to pay for the package remains an open question as talks continue.

Sen. Mitt Romney and Sen. Joe Manchin, with Senator Rob Portman, look up as Sen. Bill Cassidy arrives at a bipartisan meeting on infrastructure in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 8, 2021.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Romney stated emphatically that the group won't propose raising taxes. Portman suggested that the group is looking into whether funds from previous COVID-19 bills might be repurposed to fund this package, though the White House has previously rejected that idea.

"Probably the toughest part about this from my perspective is how are we going to pay for it," Tester said.

Can they reach a deal that will pass?

Members of the bipartisan negotiating group are optimistic that they can reach an agreement.

But the reality is that these negotiations face an uphill battle because both parties have vastly different visions for what they want an infrastructure package to do, and the bill is going to require 60 votes to pass the Senate.

If the bipartisan offer is too low or doesn't include broad enough priorities, progressive Democrats might not support it. If the bill overreaches, it likely won't find 10 sympathetic Republicans.

Already, Republican Whip John Thune has thrown cold water on any package that proposes new spending much above what Capito offered in her negotiations with Biden, a figure that Biden deemed unacceptably low.

"It’s hard for me to see a scenario where even 10 Republicans vote for something that gets very far beyond where Shelley‘s discussions were with the White House," Thune said.

Both parties also have red lines on how to fund the package. Democrats flatly reject any fees on those making less than $400,000 a year. Republicans reject any sort of tax hikes.

It's an incredibly delicate needle to thread to get all interested parties on board. The White House has talked to some members of the negotiating group but has not yet reviewed their proposal. And both Democratic and Republican leaders are not directly involved in talks.

"You can't get a successful deal unless you can figure out a way to get the White House, you can't get the White House unless you can figure out how you get the Democrats, you can't get the Democrats unless you can figure out how to get the Republicans," Murkowski said. "So we're all just going to move forward."

But can't Democrats just go it alone?

Technically yes, they can. Senate Democrats have the option to use a procedural tool called reconciliation to bypass the usual 60 vote threshold necessary to pass a bill through the Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has been exceptionally clear that he's keeping that option wide open.

Schumer told reporters at a press conference Tuesday that if a bipartisan deal is reached, he still intends to use that fast-track procedure to push through other Democratic priorities, including social and environmental programs that Biden pitched in his initial infrastructure package.

"That's not going to be the only answer," Schumer said of the bipartisan effort. "We all know as a caucus, we will not be able to do all the things that the country needs in a totally bipartisan – in a bipartisan way, and so at the same time, we are pursuing the pursuit of reconciliation. And that is going on at the same time, and it may well be that part of the bill that'll pass will be bipartisan and part of it will be through reconciliation. But we're not going to sacrifice the bigness and boldness in this bill."

Schumer has always had the option to attempt to push a huge infrastructure package on a party-line vote at any point in the last several months of negotiations, but he would need all 50 Democrats in his caucus to get behind the effort. Right now, he doesn't have that support because Manchin has repeatedly said he wants to see a show of bipartisanship.

That's why pizza, eaten at a common table shared by Democrats and Republicans late in the night, is so critical. Pizza matters to Manchin.

If Democrats hope to go it alone, they'll need to assure Manchin they've really given bipartisanship their all. And if allowing a proposal, steered by him and crafted over a slice of pizza shared with Republicans, is the way to make that case, that might be a gamble the White House is willing to take.

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