President Joe Biden's prospects for passing a major infrastructure bill through Congress with bipartisan support — seen unlikely in the wake of his Democrat-only pandemic-relief package in March — are now rising, though disagreements over funding could still scupper a deal.
Senate Republicans are set to deliver a revised offer of a package that includes roads, public transportation, and airports to the White House as early as Monday.
During last year's presidential campaign, Biden enshrined the aspiration of restoring bipartisanship to American governance. The newfound opening, however, clouds the outlook for the rest of his economic vision: a sweeping expansion of the federal government in providing support to millions of lower-income Americans, financed by higher taxes on companies and the wealthy.
Progressives have warned about the danger of undermining Democrat unity for that element of Biden's $4 trillion agenda if infrastructure is stripped out.
The dual-track strategy could allow Biden to say he lived up to promises to work with Republicans, and it would give centrist, swing-district lawmakers in his party the bipartisan achievement they crave with the approach of the 2022 midterm elections. Biden is banking on grateful moderates then being willing to vote for the rest of his plan in a Democrat-only budget process this fall.
For Republicans, a deal would let them benefit from supporting the overwhelmingly popular road, bridge, airport, and broadband projects — and free them to attack spending on child care, elder care, and education as wasteful and paid for by damaging tax increases.
The risk for Democrats is those attacks in turn could persuade enough moderate Democrats to stall the rest of the Biden plan in Congress — all the more so if economic data fuel emerging consumer concerns about inflation.
For infrastructure, the next step is for key Senate Republicans, led by West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito, to deliver a revised plan to the president. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday Biden expects to receive it no later than Tuesday.
Capito's group previously outlined a $568 billion, five-year plan focused on what it regards as "traditional" infrastructure. It had $299 billion for roads and bridges along with $44 billion for airports. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the GOP could support a package of as much as $800 billion.
Biden's plan had $2.25 trillion of spending over eight years, with much more for rail and water, along with money for electric vehicles, housing, and elder care the GOP left out.
Neither side has yet spelled out which specific bridges, airports, and other projects would feature in a final bill. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee are working on detailed legislative language.
The GOP has yet to spell out its proposed funding measures. The White House has opposed user fees as regressive, while Republicans have ruled out rolling back former President Donald Trump's 2017 tax cuts.
Republicans have indicated openness to stepping up Internal Revenue Service enforcement as one means of raising money, as Biden has proposed. But Senator Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, said last week he's skeptical that as much as $700 billion — the figure in Biden's tax plan — could be raised.
Crapo said relaxing environmental reviews of construction permits could yield some budgetary savings. The top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, also said that easing laws around public-private partnerships, or PPP, could provide funding.
"There's no need to raise taxes on wage earners and job creators — we can do this without that," Wicker said Thursday. "There was a lot of discussion about making 3P work."
Biden appeared less optimistic about PPP, but was willing to talk, Wicker said. Many PPP structures involve the collecting of tolls or fees on drivers and passengers — which would run into the administration's red line against raising levies on those earning less than $400,000 a year.
In a positive signal, Wicker and other Republicans said that Biden's determination to proceed separately with social spending they oppose wouldn't cause them to hold up a deal. Back in March, the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, said he didn't think his party would go along with an infrastructure agreement knowing that Democrats would use budget reconciliation — a tool that allows them to push a bill through the Senate without any of the 50 Republicans — for the "controversial stuff" later.
Now, the aim for both sides is to have an agreement by the end of May. Biden told GOP lawmakers he would revise his own offer in order to move the talks forward once he receives their new offer, Republicans said.
"We should know before Memorial Day whether there's a deal to be had," said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, one of the Republicans who attended a White House meeting with the president last week.
The moves have unsettled some liberal Democrats.
"We can't wait for Republicans to deliver," Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal said Thursday on CNN. "The best solution is still to go with one bill and get everything done."
If Biden does strike a bipartisan infrastructure deal, "it is going to be unlikely that we would vote for a smaller package if we don't know that the reconciliation bill was already agreed to and moving at the same time," Jayapal said.
Senate Democratic moderates like West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema — who worked with Republicans to reduce extra unemployment benefits in the March $1.9 billion stimulus bill and to oppose a minimum wage increase — are a particular concern among the progressives.
It is all forming a tactical challenge for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has just a seven-seat majority and can afford few defections. Opening Democrat talks on the reconciliation process as Jayapal suggests could also threaten the White House-GOP negotiations.
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