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Antsy Democrats warn of infrastructure time crunch

Antsy Democrats warn of infrastructure time crunch
© Greg Nash/pool

Democrats are itching to get going on infrastructure as they see an increasingly condensed legislative calendar in the months ahead.

Almost six months into the Biden administration, Democrats know they have only a matter of weeks to get a major spending package to the president’s desk unless they punt infrastructure to the fall, setting the stage for a potential end-of-year train wreck.

That new sense of urgency is pushing Senate Democrats toward a decision point, one way or another, with Democratic Whip Dick DurbinDick Durbin'Killibuster': Democratic angst grows as filibuster threatens agenda Biden administration to back bill ending crack, powder cocaine sentence disparity: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats await Manchin decision on voting rights bill MORE (Ill.) urging his colleagues to “get cooking.”

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“Listen, the whip has to count the votes and look at the calendar. I look at the calendar, I see two more weeks in June, three weeks in July and one in August and then we’re in the middle of September. I mean, zoom. It’s gone,” Durbin said.

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinSchumer vows to only pass infrastructure package that is 'a strong, bold climate bill' The Hill's Morning Report - Biden on Putin: 'a worthy adversary' Antsy Democrats warn of infrastructure time crunch MORE (D-Md.) added that “the calendar is always a factor.”

“The deeper you’re into the calendar the less options you have,” Cardin said.

For now, Democrats are keeping two options open.

Under pressure from their colleagues, a group of 10 moderates — five from each party — announced a framework Thursday for a smaller, roughly $1 trillion package, though they still need broader buy-in. At the same time, leadership is vowing to quickly lay the groundwork for budget reconciliation, allowing Democrats to sidestep a GOP filibuster for part, if not all, of a $4 trillion infrastructure bill.

“We can continue to proceed on two tracks: a bipartisan track and a reconciliation track, and both are moving forward,” Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats urge Biden to extend moratorium on student loan payments White House draws ire of progressives amid voting rights defeat Murkowski to vote 'no' on voting rights bill MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters Thursday as he left the Capitol for the week, adding: “Stay tuned.”

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The drive to push forward, with or without Republicans, comes as Democrats have become increasingly restless. Lawmakers have been essentially stuck in a holding pattern for weeks while watching President BidenJoe BidenSchumer vows to advance two-pronged infrastructure plan next month Biden appoints veteran housing, banking regulator as acting FHFA chief Iran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' MORE make a failed effort to get a bipartisan deal with a group of GOP senators led by Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoSenators say White House aides agreed to infrastructure 'framework' Overnight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 COVID-19 long-haulers press Congress for paid family leave MORE (W.Va.).

Democrats were largely skeptical that the negotiations would result in a deal that could overcome the 60-vote legislative filibuster, given the big differences in both scope and how to pay for a bill.

They also assumed that once the talks fell apart, the party would be ready to pull the trigger on passing a sweeping infrastructure bill without Republicans.

Instead, they now find themselves waiting to see if the group of 10 consensus-minded senators can win over Biden and meet the Senate’s supermajority requirement.

“That’s part of my concern,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenators say White House aides agreed to infrastructure 'framework' 'Killibuster': Democratic angst grows as filibuster threatens agenda Senate GOP blocks voting rights bill MORE (D-Conn.) about the Senate getting even later into the year. “Republicans weren’t shy to use reconciliation, I’m not sure why we should be so apologetic about it. It’s available to us under the rules and it gets this done in a more efficient way.”

The lack of legislative progress is sparking comparisons to still-bitter memories for Democrats from the Obama years, when they watched talks on the Affordable Care Act drag on for months with Republicans but with no GOP votes to show for it by the end. Congressional Democrats and Biden administration officials have talked repeatedly about wanting to avoid past missteps as they try to enact a “bold” agenda even with razor-thin margins in the House and Senate.

“I think Shelley Moore Capito consumed a number of weeks, maybe even in months, in an effort that led to nothing,” Durbin said. “I’ve seen this move before, it’s called the Affordable Care Act.”

Murphy added that Republicans are “great at putting down the football. They are also great about yanking it back up.”

To try to reassure the Democratic caucus that they will move, one way or another, Schumer has vowed that they will pursue reconciliation even as the bipartisan group tries to figure out if its plan has legs.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenators say White House aides agreed to infrastructure 'framework' Briahna Joy Gray: Biden is keeping the filibuster to have 'a Joe Manchin presidency' On The Money: Biden to fire FHFA director after Supreme Court removes restriction | Yellen pleads with Congress to raise debt ceiling MORE (I-Vt.) has sidestepped committing to when he will take up a budget resolution that unlocks a Democratic-only infrastructure bill. But he told CNN that he’s working on the resolution and signaled that he thought it was unlikely Democrats would be able to get enough Republicans to go as big as Democrats.

“Well, look, if you could get 10 senators to address the major crises facing working families and this country, in terms of roads and bridges, in terms of climate, in terms of child care, in terms of health care, in terms of education ... that's great,” Sanders said.

“But between you and me, you don't have 10 Republican senators who are prepared to do that. And that is why, as chairman of the Budget Committee, we have begun work on a major reconciliation bill,” he added.

Members of the bipartisan group are aware that they have a tight time frame to show that their proposal can garner enough support to pass. In a potential sign of trouble, the White House came out against indexing the gas tax, one of the ways the bipartisan group is proposing to pay for its bill. And it's facing skepticism from other Senate Democrats who worry it won't adequately address the environment.

After hours of confusion — with members of the bipartisan group contradicting each other about whether or not there was an agreement — they put out a joint statement short on details but said they had reached a deal on a “realistic, compromise framework” and were working to build support.

“Time is of the essence here,” said Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterWhite House digs in as infrastructure talks stall White House advisers huddle with Senate moderates on infrastructure Biden risks break with progressives on infrastructure MORE (D-Mont.), a member of the group, while acknowledging that some of his colleagues are worried about infrastructure dragging on.

“I have the same concern. I don't want to drag this out forever,” he said. “I remember other issues that have been drug out until they die. I’m not going to play that game."