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Infrastructure talks hit a wall as Senate GOP and White House exchange blame

Republicans allege that Biden’s aides reversed course

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) is the lead Republican negotiator in the infrastructure talks. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The prospects for a bipartisan infrastructure deal dimmed even further Monday, as Senate Republicans alleged that the White House had agreed to narrow the scope of its $2.2 trillion plan — only to reverse course days later.

The dispute centers on President Biden’s proposal to package new investments in roads, bridges and pipes with billions of dollars to help children and families. Republicans say Biden agreed earlier this month to seek what they describe as “social” spending as part of another legislative effort, only to have his top aides take the opposite approach during the latest round of talks Friday.

“We thought we had an understanding that social infrastructure is off — they didn’t take any of that off,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the party’s lead negotiator.

Republicans similarly had made clear to Biden that they couldn’t support tax increases to pay for the infrastructure package, Capito added, only to have the White House reaffirm its plan to raise rates on corporations when it submitted its latest counteroffer. Days later, the senator said the move left her and her colleagues wondering, “Are you not hearing us?”

Asked about the GOP’s characterization of Biden’s position, White House spokesman Andrew Bates said the president would not “negotiate through the press.”

“But after making a good faith, compromise offer that moved over 10 times as much toward his Republican colleagues’ position as they did toward his, the president’s view is that the onus is on them to make a counter offer,” he added in a statement.

Republicans balk at the White House’s slimmed-down $1.7 trillion infrastructure offer

The new GOP rebuke comes about a week before the White House’s self-imposed Memorial Day deadline, by which the Biden administration has said it hopes to see progress on a bipartisan infrastructure deal. Absent that, the president could try to forge ahead using only Democratic votes, sidestepping Republicans much as he did in advancing a $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package earlier this year.

Republicans, for their part, put forward an infrastructure counteroffer of their own last week that frustrated Democrats — and barely budged from the GOP’s initial bargaining position. Capito had originally proposed $568 billion, much of which entailed money that Congress already planned to spend. She revised the overall price tag to roughly $800 billion, but the new number reflected only a slight change, as the GOP agreed to heightened infrastructure spending over eight years instead of five.

With the clock ticking — and tempers beginning to flare — Capito and her Republican colleagues said Monday that they haven’t decided if they’re going to submit a final counteroffer before the deadline. Some Senate Democrats, meanwhile, acknowledged that the window for a bipartisan compromise is quickly closing.

“We’re getting down to decision time. We can’t put this over indefinitely,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) “So I hope they can reach an agreement. They’re still pretty far apart.”

West Virginia’s Capito emerges as central figure as Democrats, Republicans seek infrastructure deal

The standoff began two weeks ago, when Biden huddled with roughly half a dozen Senate Republicans at an Oval Office meeting that both sides later praised as a sign of “good faith” negotiations. Biden himself said at the time that he hoped to broker a deal, stressing to reporters who asked about his appetite for changes: “I’m willing to compromise.”

Behind the scenes, Republicans say Biden personally expressed an early desire to take some of the more controversial elements of his American Jobs Plan off the table. That included some of the spending around social safety-net programs, including elder care, which Republicans don’t see as infrastructure.

“It doesn’t mean that Republicans are opposed to home care or older people. It doesn’t mean Republicans are opposed to any of those things in the caring agenda. It just means they’re not infrastructure by any previous definition,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) recalled Monday.

“We understood he would try to do the rest of it without us if that was the way they needed to do the rest of it,” he added.

What’s in Biden’s $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan?

But Republicans contend that the White House changed course once both sides began trading counteroffers. By Friday, the Biden administration had agreed to slim down its $2.2 trillion plan by about $500 billion — largely by shifting some of its initial spending to proposals already under consideration in the Senate. Otherwise, the administration stood firm on the scope of its initial jobs blueprint and the tax increases that the president initially proposed to finance it.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on May 21 said the administration is open to reducing the cost of its infrastructure proposal to reach a bipartisan deal. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Erin Scott/The Washington Post)

The approach left Capito and other Senate Republicans frustrated, feeling as though Biden had been more willing than his own aides to strike a deal.

“We were much closer to a solution when we met with President Biden than we were after two meetings with his staff,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). “That seemed to go all out the window when we met with the staff on Friday.”

Earlier Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is still in pursuit of a bipartisan compromise — and is open to another meeting with Republicans.

“The ball is in the Republicans’ court,” she said at her daily press briefing.

Asked why the White House is not compromising on the climate-change or home-care provisions, which the GOP rejects, a senior administration official said last week that the negotiations represent an opportunity to demonstrate policy priorities to the other side.

Jeff Stein contributed to this report.