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Senate Republicans make new infrastructure offer as House Democrats urge Biden to dig in

Biden is now caught in the middle of warring factions in both parties as he tries to cobble together some sort of coalition

On May 27, Senate Republicans raised a $928 billion infrastructure plan to counter President Biden’s original proposed plan. (Video: The Washington Post)
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In an attempt to salvage stalled negotiations, Senate Republicans on Thursday unveiled a revised counteroffer for infrastructure spending, outlining roughly $928 billion in a package that’s still far short of what the White House has proposed.

Only about a quarter of the total price tag appears to represent new spending above existing or expected levels under the “road map” put forward by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and her GOP counterparts. But the lawmakers still stressed that their retooled approach “delivers on much” of what President Biden had recommended in earlier talks between the two sides.

The White House took a less rosy view, describing the GOP effort as “constructive” even as press secretary Jen Psaki pointed out that it still lacks enough funding for some of the president’s top priorities.

But the new Republican counter-offer at least appeared sufficient enough to keep talks going into next week, Psaki signaled, a critical development given the administration initially viewed Memorial Day as a critical deadline for determining whether to continue negotiating — or to try to forge ahead on its own.

“Senate Republicans continue to negotiate in good faith,” Capito said at a news conference unveiling the blueprint.

The Republican plan proposes more than $500 billion for roads, $98 billion for public transit, $46 billion for passenger rail and more than $70 billion for water infrastructure. Republicans recommended additional spending for ports, waterways, airports and broadband connectivity, maintaining their belief that any package should hew to what they describe as traditional infrastructure.

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But the plan does not close the other gaps that exist with the White House, where Biden recommended more than $2 trillion in new spending on a wide range of concerns, including elder care, parents and families. GOP Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.) on Thursday described the scope of the White House proposal as “socialism camouflaged as infrastructure.”

Nor does it address the thornier disputes between the two sides over Biden’s plan to finance it through tax increases on corporations, which the GOP vehemently opposes. Instead, Republicans maintained their preference to pay for infrastructure using unused stimulus funds.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), one of the lawmakers involved in the talks, said Thursday that they count about $700 billion in still-unspent funds under the last coronavirus relief package. That includes money designated for use between 2022 and 2031 to help state and local governments, bolster coronavirus testing and expand the child tax credit, all major Democratic priorities.

“We believe that repurposing these funds needs to be a really important part of how we fill this gap,” Toomey said.

In response, Psaki faulted the plan for its lack of funding, particularly toward replacing lead pipes and providing veterans care. She said the White House also did not support cutting coronavirus relief funds, adding in a statement it would “imperil pending aid to small businesses, restaurants and rural hospitals using this money to get back on their feet after the crush of the pandemic.”

But Psaki said negotiations would continue into next week, as the White House seeks to ensure “there is a clear direction on how to advance much needed jobs legislation when Congress resumes” in early June.

Despite the collegiality, the significant differences separating the White House and Senate Republicans still threaten to upend any hopes of achieving a bipartisan deal, something the president has sought since advancing his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package without any GOP votes. Both sides have barely budged in talks, particularly around what qualifies as infrastructure in the first place.

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Fearing a potential impasse, a bipartisan group of lawmakers including GOP Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) have privately huddled in recent days to try to assemble their own bipartisan compromise. They have described their early work product as an alternative to the main talks underway with the White House, though Romney on Thursday said the two sides are not as far apart as they appear.

The White House itself appeared to entertain the idea of additional negotiations on Thursday. “We are also continuing to explore other proposals that we hope will emerge,” Psaki said in a statement.

The White House has defended Biden’s ambitious vision for rebuilding the U.S. economy and workforce, with senior adviser Mike Donilon reinforcing that message in a memo made public Thursday that listed recent public polling that shows broad support for the president’s proposals.

“When Republicans criticize the President’s plan to rebuild our economy through long-overdue investments in our country’s infrastructure, they’re criticizing what their own constituents have been urging for decades,” Donilon wrote. “When they attack the President’s plan to make the wealthy finally pay their share of taxes, they’re attacking the American people’s basic sense of fairness.”

He added: “The American people — across the political spectrum — are sending a clear message, the question now is whether Congressional Republicans will listen.”

As it haggles with the GOP, the White House also faced new political demands from lawmakers from its own party on Thursday. More than 200 House Democrats banded together to issue a new warning as part of the contentious debate over infrastructure spending: Include strong union and labor protections, or possibly risk losing some of their support.

In their letter, House Democrats stressed that Congress must couple any new federal loans, grants or tax benefits to improve the country’s infrastructure with a series of policy mandates to help workers. The companies that stand to profit from this potential influx of government aid must make it easy for employees to unionize, pay them prevailing wages, take action to prevent wage theft and train workers through apprenticeship programs for future positions, the lawmakers said.

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House Democrats also registered particular concern over the emerging clean-energy industry, which could see billions of dollars in tax benefits and other fresh federal investment under Biden’s blueprint, known as the American Jobs Plan. In the lawmakers’ estimation, the industry already suffers from some of the worst worker protections across the U.S. economy, which they hope to remedy as part of an infrastructure overhaul.

“Whether it is through grants, loans, state revolving loan funds, bonds, or tax incentives, the primary condition of receiving the taxpayers’ money must be compliance with strong labor standards,” the Democrats wrote.

Three top party lawmakers — reflecting the full political spectrum among Democratic ranks — organized the effort: Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), leader of the Progressive Caucus; Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), co-chair of the fiscally minded Blue Dog Coalition; and Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who chairs a key clean-energy task force with the moderate-leaning New Democrat Coalition.

The letter, sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), stopped short of explicitly promising to vote against an infrastructure bill if it did not contain these and other labor-minded provisions. But some of the Democrats involved in its crafting said Thursday they expect that any attempt to ignore their calls to action could lose them some votes, creating new challenges for Pelosi and Biden given the party’s slim majority in the House.

“We’re signaling very clearly with such an enormous group of Democrats across the ideological spectrum this has to be in the next package, that there’s really no option not to have it in there,” Jayapal said.

Asked whether she expected Democrats to pull their votes in the absence of labor requirements, Jayapal said that for some, it could “certainly be the case,” adding: “They may not lose every single vote of the people signed onto the letter, but there are a lot of people watching this very closely.”

Republicans, for their part, are likely to balk at any attempt to advance union-friendly policies as part of a larger package to improve the country’s roads, pipes, ports and Internet connections. A fight in the coming months over labor policy could complicate the prospects for a broader bipartisan deal — especially because such a compromise already seems out of reach.

Unveiled in March, Biden’s blueprint called for over $2 trillion in new spending not only on the country’s roads, bridges, pipes and ports, but also on programs that aim to benefit workers, families and elderly Americans. Throughout the proposal, the president also pledged to premise much of the public works investment on strong worker protections, aiming to ensure employees can bargain, seek fair wages and obtain necessary training as they upgrade the country’s inner workings.

Some of the issues may be addressed under existing state or federal law. Other elements of Biden’s commitment align in approach or spirit with a measure known as the PRO Act that House lawmakers adopted in February. The bill calls for significant changes to federal labor laws to help Americans form or join unions — and protect them against potential retaliation from their employers. Biden called on Congress to adopt it during his first address to a joint session of Congress this year.

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But the fight over the PRO Act perhaps foreshadows some of the battles that await the president and his House Democratic allies as they seek strong union and labor protections in the infrastructure package. The bill cleared the chamber mostly on party lines only to stall in the Senate, where Democrats have been unable to advance it in large part because of opposition from some of the party’s centrist members — not to mention Republicans.

Wild, who supported the legislation, said she hoped the fate of Democrats’ renewed efforts are more effective — pointing to the fact that lawmakers from both parties for years have sought a massive influx in infrastructure spending.

“The PRO Act is a stand-alone,” Wild said. “This, of course, is coupled with something everyone professes deeply to want. I hope that will help lead the way for these labor protections to be included.”