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Time could be running out for infrastructure deal

President Biden is holding talks with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Senate Republicans’ point person on infrastructure, to strike a bipartisan deal on his American Jobs Plan.
President Biden is holding talks with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Senate Republicans’ point person on infrastructure, to strike a bipartisan deal on his American Jobs Plan. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The White House is making it increasingly clear that time is running out to craft a bipartisan agreement on rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, taking a sharper tone that could soon clear Democrats to act on their own to achieve President Biden’s jobs ambitions but deny him the deal with Republicans he has actively sought for weeks.

The urgent tone reflects the political choices confronting Biden, a would-be dealmaker, as liberals grow increasingly restless about delayed action on the president’s sweeping jobs plan that is a centerpiece of the Democratic agenda. Biden met Wednesday with a top Senate Republican negotiator in his continued efforts to reach a bipartisan infrastructure deal, but the meeting concluded with no public signs of substantive progress.

Biden has been eager to notch a bipartisan win after he rapidly delivered a coronavirus relief package early in his presidency with only Democratic support. But the slow pace of the talks — Democrats and Republicans still disagree over funding and even what constitutes “infrastructure” — is frustrating liberals who want the negotiations to wind to a close.

President Biden and Congress have a narrow window this summer to pass legislation on infrastructure and other issues before a potential debt limit standoff. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Now top administration officials are making it increasingly clear that the White House’s appetite for bipartisanship is not infinite. Any bipartisan agreement is likely to significantly scale back Biden’s infrastructure plan at a time when Democrats control both chambers of Congress.

“Patience is not unending, and he wants to make progress. His only line in the sand is inaction,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. “He wants to sign a bill into law this summer.”

In an interview with CNBC earlier Wednesday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm — one of the handful of Cabinet officials specifically tasked with working on the infrastructure plan — also signaled that the clock is ticking on Biden’s $2.3 trillion plan, which was unveiled nearly three months ago.

“There’s definitely a deal to be had, and there’s definitely optimism on both sides,” Granholm said, stressing the administration’s “honest and earnest desire” to agree to a plan with Republican negotiators. But she added: “There is a time limit on this. You’re not going to play this back-and-forth for much longer. There is a limit.”

The White House said Biden and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), who met on Wednesday afternoon, planned to speak again on Friday. Capito, the Senate Republicans’ point person on infrastructure, briefed fellow GOP negotiators on a call later Wednesday, according to an aide familiar with the conversation.

“This afternoon, the President hosted Senator Capito for a constructive and frank conversation in the Oval Office about how we can drive economic growth and benefit America’s middle class through investing in our infrastructure,” a White House official said in a statement.

Capito’s office also issued a statement, saying the two had discussed recent GOP counteroffers.

“Senator Capito reiterated to the president her desire to work together to reach an infrastructure agreement that can pass Congress in a bipartisan way. She also stressed the progress that the Senate has already made,” the statement said. “Senator Capito is encouraged that negotiations have continued.”

Capito emerges as central figure in infrastructure talks

Many Democrats in Congress have painful memories of the talks over health-care reform in 2009, when the Obama administration eagerly sought buy-in from Republicans to give the Affordable Care Act a bipartisan tone. Talks dragged out for months as the ACA’s popularity faded and virtually no Republicans ended up signing on, an outcome liberals in particular are determined not to repeat this time.

The White House has conducted significant congressional outreach in promoting Biden’s jobs plan — which would overhaul the nation’s ailing infrastructure systems, bolster broadband connections nationwide and make massive green energy investments — as well as a related proposal aimed at bolstering families by expanding education and safety net programs.

As of late last week, the White House had held more than 530 phone calls or meetings with Democratic and Republican lawmakers, chiefs of staff and committee staff directors on the American Jobs Plan, in addition to nearly 100 briefings for congressional committees, according to a White House official.

Meanwhile, the White House’s legislative affairs shop, led by director Louisa Terrell, has made nearly 200 calls to lawmakers of both parties to discuss the American Families Plan, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the administration’s private discussions.

But no effort has been as visible as Biden’s direct engagement with a half-dozen Senate Republicans, whom the president has invited to the Oval Office several times and deputized his top aides to meet with privately in an effort to hash out an infrastructure agreement.

Biden began with a $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal but the White House has since lowered that figure to $1.7 trillion, with some of the cuts coming from initiatives that will be funded in legislation that is already moving through Congress.

Senate Republicans — a group that includes Capito and Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.) — initially offered $568 billion in infrastructure projects and then raised it to $928 billion, although both figures include hundreds of billions of spending that was already planned.

Biden wants to fund his infrastructure plans by boosting the corporate tax rate from the current 21 percent to 28 percent, which Republican lawmakers have repeatedly said is a non-starter. Republicans have pointed to other funding options, most recently hundreds of billions of dollars in unused coronavirus relief aid, but the White House has been cool to that idea, saying most of that money is already accounted for.

A coalition of mayors and county officials also wrote to members of Congress earlier this week, urging them against using federal pandemic relief for other projects.

White House officials have publicly and privately pointed to June 9 as a critical date that Biden is now closely watching. That’s when the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will begin formally crafting legislation for surface transportation systems that could form one pillar of Biden’s broader proposal. (The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works cleared its own version of the bill in a unanimous vote late last month.)

Meanwhile, a small group of Democratic and Republican senators have met to draft an alternative proposal should the talks between Biden and Capito collapse.

The group, which include Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has made it clear it sees its potential plan as a fallback option, although Psaki, referring to their group, said Biden is “eager to see what they have to offer.”

Manchin again the center of attention

“I would say that we’re working on many channels,” she added Wednesday. “He’s going to have discussions with all of these entities and parties. And he knows that sometimes in this journey, in this path, you have to keep a range of options on the table.”

Top administration officials, particularly members of Biden’s “Jobs Cabinet,” have also continued to promote the issue in various ways.

For instance, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, one of the administration’s sharpest messengers, has continued to promote infrastructure projects across the country, even in its most conservative pockets. He is scheduled to appear at a roundtable Thursday with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), for example, to discuss the Interstate 40 bridge in Memphis, which has been closed since May 11 due to a fracture.

Biden’s sit-down with Capito also came as Senate Democrats continued to lay the groundwork for advancing a massive infrastructure bill on their own, absent the sort of bipartisan deal leaders of both parties say they still hope to strike.

Central to Democrats’ plans is a legislative maneuver known as reconciliation, which could allow them to pass the bill with 51 votes rather than the 60 usually required to overcome a filibuster and approve legislation.

But even that path may not be simple. Reconciliation only covers budget-related matters, so using it could force Democrats to limit the scope of their package.

Beyond that, not everyone in the party is ready to seize on reconciliation. Centrists, including Manchin, have signaled in recent days that they instead remain committed to bipartisan talks as they seek a deal to improve the country’s roads, bridges, pipes and Internet connections.

“If the place works,” Manchin told reporters last week, referring to the Senate, “let it work.”

Manchin: I won’t end or weaken the filibuster

Without his vote, Democrats do not have the 50 votes they need to muscle Biden’s infrastructure package through the Senate. Nor do they have the ability to change Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster, a longer-term move that Manchin and other moderates continue to oppose.

In the meantime, Democrats have received mixed news from the Senate’s primary scorekeeper in recent days about the extent to which they can rely on reconciliation to advance Biden’s economic priorities more broadly.

Along with infrastructure, the president has sought to secure a $1.9 trillion families package, an expansion of Medicare and a package of reforms designed to lower prescription drug prices.

Initially, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the chamber’s leaders can turn to reconciliation more than once in a single fiscal year, apparently opening the door for Democrats to pursue a wide array of spending using the 51-vote tactic.

But the parliamentarian sketched out a difficult path for doing so in a subsequent ruling, saying essentially that Democrats must pass a second budget resolution to invoke reconciliation an additional time.

In practice, that means the process could prove slow and politically painful. The regular budget process typically opens the door for lawmakers to offer an unlimited number of amendments on the Senate floor. So another round of reconciliation would give Republicans an additional opportunity to force Democrats to cast uncomfortable votes entering the contentious 2022 midterm elections.

“It would be better if we did this as a unified Congress, as a unified country,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who represents a swing district in northern New Jersey, said in a CNN interview Wednesday. “But the bottom line is, one way or another, we have to do it. We have to deliver.”