Republican members of a bipartisan group trying to forge a new deal to boost U.S. infrastructure reported some progress on Thursday after their Senate leader Mitch McConnell told them he was open to such a plan.
President Joe Biden's push for a sweeping $1.7 trillion package in Congress to revamp roads and bridges and tackle such other issues as education and home healthcare faced a setback earlier this week when Biden, a Democrat, rejected a far smaller proposal put forward by Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito.
The message from McConnell appeared to keep alive for now lingering hopes for a smaller, less than $900 billion, bipartisan agreement, despite pessimism voiced by Democrats and some Republicans about the likelihood of success.
Members of the group are trying to gain support for their plan from enough lawmakers to pass legislation through the 100-seat Senate with the 60 votes necessary for most bills.
"Mitch McConnell yesterday said he was open to it. That's a good next step, right?" said Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, one of the bipartisan negotiators.
Another Republican negotiator, Senator Susan Collins, told Reuters the group had a "good" meeting with McConnell. "He certainly did not commit one way or the other. But he's in a listening mode," she said.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney said other Republicans had also been receptive: "We're talking to individuals one by one, and so far, folks have said they're open to what we're doing."
Senator Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat on the negotiating group, told reporters that "Things are going in the right direction."
But the bipartisan push came under fire from Democrats who have criticized a Republican approach that narrows the focus to physical infrastructure and rules out tax increases for corporations and the wealthy.
"I don't know if there's a scenario where you can lose 10 Democrats and get 60 votes in the Senate. So this package ultimately is going to have to have the sign-off of every single Democrat," said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who is not one of the 10 senators leading the negotiating.
The Senate is split 50-50 between the two parties.
"I share the worries of others that the direction that the discussions are heading in are not necessarily going to be able to unite the Democratic caucus," Murphy said.
Republicans have rejected the president's infrastructure plan, which would address climate change, build up some social programs and pay for itself by raising taxes on U.S. corporations.
In the latest bipartisan discussions, Republican lawmakers said the group reached tentative conclusions on specific spending provisions that it would pay for without raising taxes. But they would not discuss details.
Romney said there was also "general agreement" on a top line spending figure but added that it was not set in concrete. He did not say what that number was.
A Democrat on the 10-member negotiating group was asked whether she had agreed not to raise taxes to pay for the package.
"Depends on how you talk about raising taxes," Senator Jeanne Shaheen replied. She said there was no final agreement among group members, adding: "It's one of those things where nothing's agreed until everything's agreed to."
Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have talked about a two-track approach including a smaller bill that can gain Republican backing and a more sweeping package that could pass the Senate with a simple majority through a parliamentary process known as reconciliation.
Biden broke off talks on Tuesday with Capito, who had headed a six-member Republican team, including party leaders and top members of relevant Senate committees.
The White House remains upbeat about prospects for a deal.
Kate Bedingfield, White House communications director, said on Thursday she was encouraged by bipartisan negotiations in both the House of Representatives and Senate.
"We're seeing progress on multiple fronts right now," she told CNN. "This is how a bill becomes a law. It's a process with many steps, and we're encouraged by all of the progress happening on these different paths simultaneously."
Cassidy, who spoke to Biden by phone on Tuesday, said he had not heard from the president since and told reporters no further formal bipartisan discussions were scheduled for this week.
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