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Bipartisan infrastructure talks in dire state ahead of pivotal week

POLITICO logo POLITICO 7/26/2021 By Marianne LeVine and Burgess Everett
Tom Carper et al. standing next to a man in a suit and tie: Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper (pictured) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth both raised concerns about the funding last week, with Carper suggesting he would have a hard time supporting the package unless certain funding conditions were met. © Alex Wong/Getty Images Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper (pictured) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth both raised concerns about the funding last week, with Carper suggesting he would have a hard time supporting the package unless certain funding conditions were met.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he was "fully committed" to passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill this summer, but warned that more foot-dragging could require the Senate to stay in over the weekend or cuts to some of the upcoming August recess.

Schumer's warning came as the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations entered their darkest phase in more than a month on Monday, with the parties openly feuding over policy and former President Donald Trump urging Republicans to drop the effort altogether.

And for a Democratic Party eager to move on to the rest of its agenda before the midterms cloud every decision in Congress, time is running short.

"The bipartisan group of senators has had nearly five weeks of negotiations since they first announced an agreement with President Biden. It's time for everyone to get to yes and produce an outcome," Schumer said on Monday afternoon.

Schumer also challenged Republicans over whether they would "follow the absurd demands of a disgraced former president" and abandon the deal. He called on the GOP to "ignore former President Trump."

As bipartisan negotiators aim to finalize an agreement, Trump said that Senate Republicans “are being absolutely savaged by Democrats on the so-called ‘bipartisan’ infrastructure bill” and urged them to wait until they take back the Senate in 2022 to “regain a strong negotiating stance.” Trump tried unsuccessfully to cut a deal with Democrats on infrastructure during his presidency, sidelining negotiations once his impeachment investigation began.

Schumer's urgency and Trump's taunts reflect a state of negotiations more bleak than it's been in a month, so much so that the GOP sent out a list of areas where that Democratic offer broke from previous agreements among the bipartisan senators writing the bill on Monday afternoon. It is the latest in a running list of bleak signs for the talks ahead of another pivotal week of negotiations in the Senate.

Although the bipartisan group and the White House announced an agreement last month on a bipartisan framework, translating it into legislative text is proving difficult. Schumer wants to pass the bipartisan bill and begin the process for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion social spending package before the Senate leaves for the August recess.


Video: Efforts for bipartisan infrastructure plan intensify (ABC News)

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Democrats and the White House on Sunday night offered a proposal to Republicans with a deal on highway and public transit funding, as well as several other unresolved areas. That offer was intended to address all outstanding disputes — and was immediately rejected by Republicans.

The talks seem in danger of collapse given the public acrimony and finger-pointing on Monday, after a fruitless weekend of discussions. The group of 10 senators leading the talks will huddle again on Monday evening, in an attempt to rescue the fragile negotiations.

The comprehensive offer "we received from the White House and Chuck Schumer was discouraging since it attempts to reopen numerous issues the bipartisan group had already agreed to,” said a GOP source familiar with the negotiations. “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.”

Two additional sources close to the talks, one in each party, confirmed the dire state of negotiations on a signature priority of President Joe Biden. Each blamed the other side for reopening debate on items once considered settled.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she is “confident” an agreement can be reached. But many struck a more dour tone in private. And Democrats said the frantic past few days was kicked off by Republicans rejecting an increase in IRS enforcement to pay for the bill.

“It takes a lot of chutzpah for Republicans to make accusations about keeping words when the biggest hole blown in the [financing] was made by them reneging on their agreement about enforcing the law on wealthy tax cheats,” said a Democrat familiar with the negotiations.

The bipartisan group of lawmakers hoped to reach a final agreement by early this week after a vote to advance undrafted legislation failed last week. But that appears unlikely, with several issues outstanding. Among the biggest sticking points is transit, but broadband has also become a point of contention. The bill’s finances are also viewed as shaky.

A Democratic source familiar with the bipartisan discussions said that Democrats’ counteroffer included accepting the GOP proposal for highways in exchange for the Democratic proposal on transit. But Republicans dispute that characterization. A GOP source familiar with the negotiations said the choice isn't binary and that the GOP offer on transit "was met with silence for three days.”

Funding for water infrastructure also remains unresolved, according to a Democratic source familiar with the talks, who accused Republicans of backing away from the original agreement. That source said that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) had reneged on a deal and "proposed something completely unworkable."

A spokesperson for Romney called that "laughably false" and said Schumer is seeking $15 billion more than a previous agreement.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) both raised concerns about the funding last week, with Carper suggesting he would have a hard time supporting the package unless certain funding conditions were met. The snafu illustrates the tricky challenge the group of rank-and-file senators led by Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has in navigating around committee chairs.

Eleven Senate Republicans wrote Schumer last week to tell him they’d be ready to move forward as soon as Monday, provided the bill was mostly completed and its finances were in order. Neither condition was met as senators convened on Monday afternoon.

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