Biden’s infrastructure deal on shaky ground as blame game begins


Washington CNN —  

President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure deal is in a perilous state with Republicans and Democrats remaining far apart on a range of outstanding issues after the latest round of furious talks, the clearest sign yet that one of the White House’s top legislative priorities could collapse in the coming days.

The talks have reached a crucial juncture more than a month after Biden and a group of 10 senators from both parties trumpeted a bipartisan framework detailing their $1.2 trillion deal to bolster the nation’s waterways, bridges, water systems and broadband networks.

But turning that short outline into detailed legislative text has proven to be enormously difficult, with the two sides still squabbling over funding levels for transit systems and exactly how to pay for the nearly $600 billion in new spending – among a handful of other thorny issues.

If the talks collapse, Democrats could try to roll in pieces of the plan into a larger, $3.5 trillion proposal that their party is trying to pass along straight party lines through the budget process. But that would only add to the cost – and could turn off moderates already skeptical about the plan.

The much-deliberated bipartisan plan is entering a critical week on Capitol Hill, and some lawmakers had projected optimism ahead of a possible procedural vote this week, potentially on Monday. But with no resolution reached yet, negotiators face a steep uphill climb to resolve remaining issues after a weekend of talks failed to produce an agreement.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday that bipartisan infrastructure talks have reached a “critical moment” and put senators on notice they might stay in session through the weekend, as negotiators attempt to finalize an agreement.

The 10 main negotiators are planning to meet Monday to put deliberations back on track. But there is now a blame game underway, another indication that negotiations are in danger of falling apart.

Democratic negotiators, including the White House, sent Republicans on Sunday night a “global offer to finish every major open item,” a Democratic source close to the talks told CNN. The offer included the major unresolved issues, including funding for highways and bridges, money for water systems, prevailing wage laws, using unspent Covid-19 money as a way to finance the bill as well as an infrastructure bank and transit funding.

But Republicans pushed back against the effort. A GOP source familiar told CNN on Monday that the offer “was discouraging since it attempts to reopen numerous issues the bipartisan group had already agreed to.”

The source warned, “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.”

Republicans “made very reasonable, good-faith offers every step of the way during this process, including on transit Wednesday,” the source said, adding, “That offer was met with silence for three days.”

A Democratic source close to the talks said that Republicans are “goalpost moving,” arguing, for instance, that Republicans “reneged” on an agreement the group had on how to deal with funding for water systems and an additional $15 billion for lead pipe contamination issues. GOP Sen. Mitt Romney proposed something “completely unworkable,” the Democratic source said.

The same Democratic source says that Democrats said they would meet the GOP proposal on highway funding as long as Republicans agreed to their party’s proposal on transit. The GOP said no to that idea as well.

Romney’s office responded on Monday by calling accusations of goalpost moving and reneging on an agreement “laughably false.”

“As the White House’s own website shows, the deal on water was for $55 billion in new spending,” Romney’s office said in a statement. “After days of radio silence, (Senate Majority Leader Chuck) Schumer now wants $70 billion. This is a direct violation of the bipartisan agreement.”

Republicans are also claiming that Democrats have “broken” a series of agreements for the bipartisan framework.

According to a GOP source familiar, that includes Democrats pushing for prevailing wage requirements for a number of priorities such as broadband and cybersecurity despite members having agreed not to add new requirements.

The source said another broken agreement is the fact that the White House now will not agree to funding offsets until all spending is closed out.

The pressure is on after Senate Republicans blocked a vote to start debate on the bipartisan infrastructure bill last week. That vote was 49-51, short of the 60 votes needed to advance the measure.

A group of 22 Democratic and Republican senators said afterward that they were “close to a final agreement” and were “optimistic that we will finalize, and be prepared to advance, this historic bipartisan proposal to strengthen America’s infrastructure and create good-paying jobs in the coming days.”

But the days since have brought more scrutiny from lawmakers outside the group of negotiators, including Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, who warned Sunday against treating federal funding as “Monopoly money.”

“A very, very important category for me is how all this is going to get paid for,” the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”

“Now we’re talking about another $600 billion on top of the ordinary spending. … This is completely out of hand. There are people who think this is Monopoly money, but it’s not, Jake. And so I’m concerned. I think the way we should pay for this increase in infrastructure spending is by re-purposing money we already approved, but hasn’t yet gone out the door.”

Despite the plodding negotiations, lawmakers from both parties signaled Sunday that a deal is close at hand.

GOP Sen. Rob Portman, a key negotiator on the bipartisan infrastructure deal, projected optimism that the group will reach a deal this week, telling ABC News, “We’re about 90% of the way there.”

“I feel good about getting it done this week,” the Ohio Republican said.

That message was echoed by Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who told CBS News that negotiators were “very close” to a deal on Sunday.

“We’re in the final strokes, we’re in the final days. We’re optimistic, we are all engaging daily, multiple times a day with members of the Senate, and we’re feeling really good about it,” she said.

The bipartisan effort is one part of a two-track strategy to advance the White House’s sweeping economic agenda, as Democrats continue to lay the groundwork to advance a $3.5 trillion package expanding the social safety net.

The Democratic bill, which they hope to pass through a budget process known a reconciliation, is expected to set the stage for Democrats to pass measures like expanding the child tax credit, offering paid medical and family leave and potentially even overhauling the country’s immigration system. The bill is also expected to include changes to the US tax code.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reiterated on Sunday that she won’t put the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill on the House floor unless the larger $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill passes the Senate.

“I won’t put it on the floor unless we have the rest of the initiative,” Pelosi told ABC News.

“So I’m enthusiastic about the fact that they will have a bipartisan bill. I hope that it will be soon. But yes, I stand by, because the fact is, is that the President has said that he wants to have a bipartisan bill, and we all do,” she continued. “But that is not the limitation of the vision of the President. He wants to build back better. He wants to do so in a way that, again, involves many more people in the prosperity of our country.”

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Monday.

CNN’s Ali Zaslav, Paul LeBlanc, Katie Lobosco and Tami Luhby contributed to this report.