Moderate GOP members of Congress also have pledged to narrow their focus to include only the elements they consider traditional infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, while jettisoning the corporate tax increases that Biden has endorsed in favor of other ways of financing the overall package.
The discussions appear to be underway among a group of 10 Republicans, including Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Bill Cassidy (La.), who each hinted at early legislative efforts during interviews over the past day. Romney told reporters Wednesday that the process is still in its “early stages,” though he signaled Republicans would potentially discuss it Thursday. He also said GOP leaders could eventually try to engage with 10 centrist-leaning Democrats to broaden their coalition.
But the Republicans’ new effort threatened to further widen the political rift with Democrats, who fretted that the moderates’ scaled-back focus and slimmed-down spending simply would not be enough to tackle the challenges they say the country faces.
“We have a major crisis in terms of roads, bridges, water systems, affordable housing, you name it,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), adding about the early contours of the GOP package: “That is nowhere near what we need. Not to mention, we have to address the existential threat of climate change.”
The flurry of new activity comes as Biden labors to negotiate with Republicans nationwide in the hopes of striking a bipartisan agreement over the signature element of his economic agenda. The outreach campaign continued into Wednesday, as Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, and Steve Ricchetti, the presidential counselor, huddled with a coalition of centrist House Democrats and Republicans who belong to the Problem Solvers Caucus.
A GOP member of that group, Rep. Dusty Johnson (S.D.), said after the private gathering that he felt the administration had engaged in “good faith,” stressing that lawmakers from both parties sought to implore the White House against adopting a “one-party solution” on infrastructure.
Biden has taken a broad view of infrastructure, coupling proposed investments in the country’s inner workings with other programs to combat climate change, help schools and care for seniors. He aims to finance the vast package predominately through an increase in the corporate tax rate, unwinding the tax cuts previously authorized by President Donald Trump.
But Biden also has signaled an openness to compromising on the full thrust of the package, telling lawmakers at a meeting in the Oval Office earlier this week that his appeal to bipartisanship amounts to more than “window dressing.” In doing so, White House officials and Democratic lawmakers have sought to emphasize they are only willing to negotiate for so long, raising the specter that they could try to muscle infrastructure reform through Congress on their own.
The moderate Senate Republicans who have newly set about crafting an infrastructure plan belong to a bipartisan group of 20 lawmakers that had previously helped break a months-long congressional logjam over coronavirus aid last year. Their labors led to the passage of a $900 billion stimulus just before Congress adjourned in December.
But their relationship with the White House has been strained in recent months, particularly after Democrats secured the adoption of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus package in March without heeding their input. The bloc of Republicans even issued a critical statement last week, faulting the Biden administration for its approach to the earlier debate.
On Wednesday, Capito told reporters she expects a GOP counter-proposal to be ready “hopefully soon.” She said the plan is likely to track along the lines of the blueprint she sketched out earlier in the day during a television appearance on CNBC, when she said the “sweet spot” for infrastructure reform is around $600 billion to $800 billion.
Capito explained that most of the money would go toward roads and bridges and not items many Republicans allege are unrelated to infrastructure. And she joined Republicans in blasting Biden’s proposed tax increases as a nonstarter for the GOP, echoing the staunch opposition earlier this week from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Romney later said the $800 billion price tag may be “a little high,” though he said the proposal is likely to include funding for highways, railways, airports, water and sewer systems, and Internet connectivity. The GOP lawmaker said he hopes to finance it through fees on the users of those services, a category of revenue-raisers that could include higher payments on drivers of gas-powered or electric vehicles. Democrats largely have resisted the idea, fearing it may encroach on Biden’s pledge not to raise taxes on Americans who make under $400,000 per year.
Cassidy, meanwhile, told local reporters this week that he intends to meet with governors and a bipartisan group of lawmakers on an alternative infrastructure plan that could double Biden’s proposed spending on roads and bridges. He added Wednesday that he is negotiating with local officials, including Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, on the scope of the package.