Politics

Bipartisan Infrastructure Talks Are Skidding off the Rails

The White House makes an offer, and Senate Republicans denounce White House staff.

Biden sits in an armchair and Capito on a couch, both wearing black masks, during a meeting
President Joe Biden and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito in the Oval Office on May 13. Pool/Getty Images

Some bridges are harder to build than others. On Friday afternoon, White House staff presented a counteroffer to the Senate Republicans with whom they’re trying to negotiate a major infrastructure package. The latest proposal came in at $1.7 trillion, about $550 billion less than what the administration had originally sought when it introduced its American Jobs Plan. Among the biggest changes, the administration dropped its manufacturing and R&D requests, much of which it’s pursuing separately in legislation that the Senate is debating this week. It also offered to narrow its request for broadband and new transportation projects.

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Despite the movement in their direction, the Republicans responded by coming within a hair of challenging White House chief of staff Ron Klain to a duel for such a dishonorable proposal.

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“During today’s call, the White House came back with a counteroffer that is well above the range of what can pass Congress with bipartisan support,” a spokeswoman for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Republicans’ lead in these negotiations, said in a statement. “There continue to be vast differences between the White House and Senate Republicans when it comes to the definition of infrastructure, the magnitude of proposed spending, and how to pay for it. Based on today’s meeting, the groups seem further apart after two meetings with White House staff than they were after one meeting with President Biden.”

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After months of casual chitchat, the bipartisan talks between Republicans and the White House on infrastructure are reaching a make-or-break moment. Both parties have looked at Memorial Day as a rough deadline to determine whether or not there’s a deal to be made. So all they have to get a mutual understanding of in the next few days is how to bridge a trillion-dollar divide, how to pay for any of it, and what the word infrastructure means.

Which outcome would you put your money on?

Despite Republicans’ sharp statement on Friday, and plenty of Democrats’ louder and louder calls for the administration to cut things off and move along to a Democrats-only bill, the talks have not gone cold just yet. Capito and fellow Republican negotiators met Tuesday and decided to unveil another counteroffer later this week.

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According to Sen. Roger Wicker, one of their lead negotiators, their new offer will come in at close to $1 trillion, up from their original offer of $568 billion. It will include “hardly anything on user fees”—such as a gas tax increase—to pay for it, something the Biden administration had rejected as a violation of his pledge not to raise taxes on those making less than $400,000 a year.

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“This is a very good offer, and it moves in his direction,” Wicker told reporters. “He ought to take it.”

Republicans will propose to pay for their new plan in large part by repurposing unused COVID relief funds. That was something that former Clinton treasury secretary and Obama economic adviser Larry Summers, who’s been vocal about his fears of inflation for months, proposed in an op-ed published this week. Republicans love to quote “Democrat Larry Summers” as a validator of their talking points, and the utterance of his name has the side benefit of filling progressives with seething rage. He was the talk of the Senate Republican Conference on Tuesday, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell kicked off his weekly press conference with an ode to “former Bill Clinton secretary of the treasury” and “ally of the Biden administration” Larry Summers’ warning about the Democrats’ “big spending.”

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Wicker, similarly, referenced Summers in arguing that their proposal’s repurposing of COVID relief funds would do Biden “the favor of showing him how to pay” for a big infrastructure bill “without exacerbating this huge inflation tax that’s hitting every American.”

Republicans know perfectly well that substantially rolling back the COVID relief bill Democrats passed earlier this year will go over poorly with Democrats, just as Democrats know that reversing the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts will go over poorly with Republicans. So even as offers and counteroffers are being tossed around, the groundwork is already being laid for assigning blame if, or when, this collapses.

Republicans—as Capito indicated in her statement that the “groups seem further apart after two meetings with White House staff than they were after one meeting with President Biden”—are trying to drive a wedge between dear, sweet, affable, popular deal-maker Joe Biden and his menacing, ideological staff. According to Republicans, Biden had said in a meeting with them that he could live with an eight-year infrastructure plan of $1 trillion, which they plan to offer him.

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“We’re going to make it eight years, as the president said he would accept,” Wicker told reporters. “We’re going to hit a figure very close to what the president said he would accept. And it will end up being the most substantial infrastructure bill ever enacted by the federal government.

“If the president gets to make the decision, he will accept this.”

When asked whether the impediment to a deal was a White House staff problem, then, Wicker just said, “Let me leave it at that.”

It’s that menacing, ideological staff, however, that’s charged with gauging congressional support. Many Democrats are irritated that the administration is talking to Republicans at all. Others thought moving $550 billion in Republicans’ direction was too sharp of a concession, and might have trouble voting for something less than the current offer. The next big concessions that the Biden administration would have to make to strike a deal would be rolling back popular COVID relief provisions and cutting the hundreds of billions of dollars in “care infrastructure” that Biden has requested. It’s hard to see how that would fly with rank-and-file Democrats in Congress.

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If talks collapse, then, expect Republicans to say that Biden, a Decent Man, wasn’t able to overcome the partisan ghouls on his staff and in Congress, while Democrats say that Republicans were never engaging in good faith to begin with and hate creating jobs for the American people. Democrats can move to pursuing a partisan bill through reconciliation that they can run on, while Republicans can, ideally, stop them from passing it, or at least have another item to twist as socialism and run against in the midterms.

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One of the main reasons Democrats haven’t moved on to reconciliation already is that they don’t have the votes to do so until the bipartisan talks have expired. One of those key senators who won’t proceed to reconciliation until the talks have been given a chance, Joe Manchin, hasn’t given up hope. He pointed to the bipartisan bill under debate on the Senate floor, designed to bolster manufacturing and technological competitiveness with China, as a sign that things could work through regular order.

“Don’t give up,” he told a mob of reporters harrying him about whether a bipartisan infrastructure deal was truly still possible. “You all give up too quick. You’ve got to be more positive.”

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