Bipartisan talks sow division among Democrats

Democratic lawmakers are splitting apart over whether it makes sense to continue negotiating with Republicans on a scaled-down infrastructure package after President Biden ended talks with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the lead Republican negotiator on infrastructure.

A new group of Senate negotiators is looking to pick up where Biden and Capito left off, but that’s not welcome news to progressive Democrats, who think too much time has already been spent trying to reach an elusive bipartisan infrastructure deal.

The bipartisan talks, which right now includes five Republican and five Democratic senators, is getting pushback from the broader Senate Democratic Caucus as well as key progressives in the House who argue that they’re wasting time.

Democratic senators expressed concern during a caucus meeting Tuesday that moving a scaled-down infrastructure bill that includes the most popular bipartisan priorities — such as new spending for roads, bridges and airports— could make it more difficult to move a bigger infrastructure package under the budget reconciliation process.

Progressives worry that moderates who vote for a scaled-down infrastructure bill may not later support a larger package with provisions addressing climate change, expanding access to child care and funding long-term home health care.

“It’s time to fish or cut bait,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) tweeted on Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, Whitehouse said he was nervous that climate provisions might get left out of a bipartisan infrastructure package.

“I’m still nervous. We must get Senate Dems unified on climate on a real reconciliation bill, lest we get sucked into ‘bipartisanship’ mud where we fail on climate,” he tweeted.  

Whitehouse said after the caucus meeting Tuesday that he wants all Democrats, including moderates involved in a new round of bipartisan talks, to understand that a scaled-down infrastructure package and a larger reconciliation package must move in tandem.

“There’s widespread concern that the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations not be permitted to form a cap on our aspirations for what we can do without Republican support if we need to,” he said. “It needs to be clear going in this is a two-stage process and we’ve got to be committed to both parts of the process.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a prominent House progressive, warned Wednesday that Democrats are wasting the little time they have to enact Biden’s $4 trillion infrastructure agenda before next year’s elections.

She noted that Democrats unexpectedly lost their 60-seat Senate supermajority in January 2010 when Republican Scott Brown scored a stunning upset victory in the special election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who died a few months earlier.

“Dems are burning precious time & impact negotiating w/ GOP who won’t even vote for a Jan 6 commission. McConnell’s plan is to run out the clock. It’s a hustle. We need to move now,” she tweeted, referring to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said it’s “foolish” to hope for a bipartisan deal and urged Democratic leaders to move immediately to setting up a budget reconciliation process to bypass a GOP filibuster and pass a major infrastructure package through the Senate with a simple-majority vote.

“In case it wasn’t clear already, it certainly is now: Republicans are not going to do what needs to be done for working families. It would be foolish to think that Republican senators will suddenly go against Leader McConnell’s goal of dedicating 100 percent of his energy toward blocking President Biden’s agenda,” she said in a statement.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also vented his frustration with the latest push to extend bipartisan talks.

“Enough is enough. Every state in this country has a crumbling infrastructure. Now is the time to put our people back to work by finally addressing the structural problems we face. Let’s get it done,” he tweeted.

Sanders told CNN in a follow-up interview that there wouldn’t be 10 Republican votes to get even a scaled-down bipartisan package through the Senate outside the reconciliation process.

“I do not believe there are 10 Republican senators who are prepared to take on the wealthy and the powerful and special interests and do the right thing for the American people,” he said, citing the lack of a single Republican vote for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would address pay disparities between men and women. 

In a nod to rising consternation among Senate liberals, Schumer said Tuesday that infrastructure will move on two tracks, guaranteeing that a larger bill moving under budget reconciliation won’t get left behind.   

Despite rising irritation among their more liberal colleagues, a small group of moderate Democrats led by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are forging ahead with their own negotiations with Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and a few other Republicans.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the moderates’ group, defended the attempt to restart bipartisan negotiations after Biden and Capito failed to reach a deal.

Warner acknowledged the bipartisan talks on a smaller package and what happens with a budget reconciliation package “are intertwined” but noted  that “the president’s made very clear that if we can get a substantial bipartisan infrastructure package that he would want to see that happen.”

“We all know historically that if you do things bipartisan they have a tendency to stick longer,” he added.

The trajectory of the talks between Senate Democratic and Republican moderates is raising doubts about whether any resulting proposal can secure the support of 10 GOP senators and Biden, who made clear during his talks with Capito that he wants infrastructure investment paid for in part with tax increases.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said “not many” Republicans will support any infrastructure package that goes further than what Capito offered Biden.

“It’s going to have to hew pretty closely to the contours of what Capito is talking about and particularly with regards to pay-fors. The one thing our members aren’t going to vote for is tax increases,” Thune said.

“I hope it yields a result, but after seeing the Capito-White House negotiations break down I’m not holding my breath,” he added.  

Members of the new group of bipartisan negotiators say tax increases are off the table, though they are looking at indexing the gas tax to inflation, which some members argue is not a tax increase, per se.

There’s also skepticism among Democrats and Republicans that Biden will back an agreement that doesn’t raise taxes on corporations, which would benefit immensely from greater ease of moving products to market through upgraded infrastructure.

Sources familiar with the Capito-Biden talks say the president repeatedly put different tax hikes on the table. His last counteroffer proposed setting a 15 percent minimum tax for profitable corporations that otherwise would pay little or nothing because of various tax breaks. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Filibuster Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Thune Kyrsten Sinema Mark Warner Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Pramila Jayapal Rob Portman Sheldon Whitehouse Shelley Moore Capito

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