Biden seeks new coalition for infrastructure bill as talks with key GOP senators fall apart

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U.S. President Joe Biden departs after speaking in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.

Samuel Corum | Bloomberg | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – Negotiations between the White House and a small group of Republican senators over a bipartisan infrastructure bill collapsed on Tuesday, weighed down by deep disagreements over what constitutes infrastructure and how much money should be allocated for it.

Senator Shelley Moore Capito, W.Va., the lead Republican negotiator, said President Joe Biden had spoken to her by phone Tuesday and ended the negotiations.

“I spoke with the president this afternoon, and he ended our infrastructure negotiations,” Moore Capito said in a statement.

“Throughout our negotiations, we engaged respectfully, fully, and very candidly—delivering several serious counteroffers that each represented the largest infrastructure investment Republicans have put forth,” she said.

Tuesday’s announcement marked the end of more than a month of intense negotiations between Republican senators, the president and their respective staffers.

With no grand bargain in sight, Biden on Friday reached out to three senators who are part of a bipartisan group that has been quietly working on a backup infrastructure plan.

The other bipartisan infrastructure talks

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., tweeted that Biden called him on Tuesday and “brought up flood resiliency and energy provisions” that would boost his state.

“Strongly support [Capito’s] efforts. Any infrastructure package should and must be bipartisan,” he wrote.

Biden also called two centrist Democrats, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

The president “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,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement on Friday afternoon.

Biden will spend the next 10 days in Europe, but Psaki said he had designated key Cabinet members and White House aides Steve Ricchetti, Louisa Terrell, and Brian Deese to meet with the senators while he is traveling.

Other senators working on the alternative plan include Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio and Mitt Romney, R-Utah. The lawmakers crafting the proposal planned to meet on Tuesday afternoon.

The group aims to win over as many as 20 centrist senators to back their plan once it is finalized.

While it is unclear what that final plan would contain, it could cost just under $900 billion, according to reports. The price tag would be roughly half of Biden’s last $1.7 trillion offer to the GOP.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday that the bipartisan group of senators “are trying to put something together that might be closer to what the president needs” than Capito’s offer.

While Capito last sent Biden an offer approaching $1 trillion, only a fraction of it was actual new spending, and the rest was money repurposed from other federal agencies.

But congressional leaders have not yet put their weight behind the larger group of senators’ talks. And it is unclear whether Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would support any big infrastructure bill at all.

On the Democratic side, Manchin will play an outsized role in any eventual bill passed by the chamber, where Democrats only hold a one seat majority.

So far, Manchin has insisted that any infrastructure bill be bipartisan. His stance could force his party to embrace a smaller, bipartisan infrastructure package this summer, and then wait until later in the year to tackle other priorities like care for dependents and clean energy projects.

Biden is also in touch with Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the Democratic chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who spoke by phone with the president last Friday.

DeFazio’s committee will mark up a massive reauthorization bill on Wednesday to fund surface transportation and highways for the next five years. Considered a “must-pass” spending bill, the highway legislation could be written to include several planks of Biden’s signature infrastructure plan.

Yet Biden does not intend to let the haggling over a bipartisan infrastructure bill get in the way of another effort underway, simultaneously, this one by Democrats only.

The reconciliation route

In addition to his calls with centrist senators on Friday, the president also spoke to Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Psaki.

In each of those calls, she said, Biden effectively gave the two Democratic leaders a green light to move ahead with standalone infrastructure legislation that could pass the Senate with a simple majority, a process known as budget reconciliation.

This effort requires the House and Senate to both agree on a budget resolution with specific provisions in it that need to be finalized by committees after the resolution is approved. Once the committees are done, the final package of all the tax and spending is combined into one massive bill that reconciles the differences.

This bill requires only a simple majority in each chamber to pass, bypassing the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

On Friday, Biden instructed both Schumer and Pelosi to “commence work on the budget resolution process so that legislation to advance the President’s economic priorities and tax reform plans could move to the Senate floor in July,” said Psaki.

“The President is committed to moving his economic legislation through Congress this summer, and is pursuing multiple paths to get this done,” she added.

This is a developing story. please check back for updates.

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