GOP split on counteroffer to Biden’s spending

Republicans are divided over how big they want to go on infrastructure, even as talks move forward with the White House.

GOP senators are united in their view that President Biden’s $4.1 trillion package is a non-starter, along with any efforts to undo parts of the 2017 tax-cut bill. But what’s less clear is their top line for a counterproposal and how they would pay for it.

“No, we’re just starting,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) when asked if there was a number that unified Republicans.

“I think everything’s on the table, with the exception of the 2017 tax bill. … The first thing we need to figure out is what infrastructure means and what the number is,” she added about how to pay for a package.

The GOP’s fluidity comes as Biden has been trying to court Republicans, despite bipartisan skepticism of a deal taking shape given the significant gaps between the two sides on major sticking points like the price tag and financing.

Biden met with the “Big Four” on Wednesday, marking the first time he’s sat down with all congressional leaders at the White House since taking office. He’ll host a group of GOP senators, led by Capito, on Thursday.

Capito last month spearheaded a $568 billion framework from 10 Republicans that served as an opening salvo in the weeks-long talks with Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has since suggested Republicans would be willing to go bigger, potentially up to $800 billion.

“The proper price tag for what most of us think of as infrastructure is about $600 to $800 billion,” McConnell told Kentucky public television, a significant increase from the $600 billion he had previously indicated was a red line for Republicans.

The higher figure risks splintering Republicans.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2, indicated that everyone in the caucus might not be able to get on board with $800 billion.

“You know, Sen. McConnell articulated a view, I think, that probably describes where he thinks Republicans might be able to land. We’ll have different views within our conference,” Thune said.

“A lot of it for our members will come down to how it’s offset, how it’s paid for,” he said.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) added that going to $800 billion could cost Republican votes.

“I think you would lose some fiscal conservatives on that,” Braun said.

Republicans aren’t unified behind a number, but fiscal hawks, he warned, might want to go significantly smaller.

“I think that some that weigh the fiscal issues, like I do, it wouldn’t be palatable at $500 to $600 billion,” Braun said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who was at the White House meeting with Biden on Wednesday, indicated that $800 billion goes beyond what members of his conference are leaning toward.

“We have a bill coming out a little less than that,” McCarthy said, predicting that House Republicans could come out with their legislation as soon as next week.

The GOP debate over spending comes as the party appears ready to get back to its fiscal hawk roots after four years of embracing big spending under former President Trump.

McConnell, during his recent swing through Kentucky, warned against taking up another large spending package that adds to the country’s debt — a view that has only solidified among Republicans after a disappointing April jobs report.

“My view is let this robust, capitalist economy come back without any additional massive taxing or borrowing on the part of the federal government,” he said. “I don’t think we ought to do any more massive additions to the national debt.”

After Wednesday’s meeting at the White House, McConnell sounded an optimistic tone on a potential deal with Biden.

“I think both sides would like to get an outcome,” McConnell said during an interview with Fox News, adding that they “discussed an issue upon which there’s a great chance we can get a bipartisan outcome.”

But Republicans haven’t yet landed on how to finance an infrastructure package, though they agree it needs to be paid for. McConnell, on Wednesday, declined to put a price tag on a bill.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Republicans all agreed on the need for infrastructure but acknowledged the amount of spending needed sparks a “different point of view from person to person” and that Republicans “may disagree as to how much is enough.”

“I think it’s one that the vast majority would probably go with. It doesn’t mean that that’s the only offer that’s ever made,” Rounds said about the $568 billion offer from Capito.

Some are floating a combination of user fees and an increased gas tax to pay for a bill — proposals that have prompted pushback from Democrats.

There’s also skepticism that those revenue streams would generate enough money to cover the cost.

“There’s no way. That wouldn’t even come close to it,” Braun said, about combining fees and a raised gas tax to cover $800 billion in spending.

Though open to user fees, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is suggesting taking money from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that’s designated for 2022 and beyond and redirecting it toward a transportation bill. That, he said, would let Republicans use up to $721 billion.

“I’m trying to convince our conference that that ought to be our position. Any new spending that Democrats propose, we’ll say, ‘OK, that’s a worthy spending item, but we’re going to rescind the out-year COVID relief … and repurpose it to things that we should spend money on, things like infrastructure,’” Johnson said.

But Republicans are also stressing that they don’t think they should get too fixated on a top-line number until they lock down how to pay for it.

“I personally think we need to figure out what we agree is infrastructure and what the needs are, then we figure out how to pay for it,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “Trying to figure out how much money you want to spend without really knowing what you want to accomplish strikes me as backward.”

Tags Donald Trump Infrastructure Joe Biden John Cornyn John Thune Kevin McCarthy Mike Braun Mike Rounds Mitch McConnell Ron Johnson Shelley Moore Capito taxes West Virginia
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