Senate infrastructure talks in political jeopardy as infighting spills out into the open

Source: By Tony Romm, Seung Min Kim and Ian Duncan, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, July 26, 2021

Lawmakers had hoped to meet self-imposed Monday deadline but disagreements keep piling up.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, left, accompanied by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, leave in the elevator after a closed door talks about infrastructure on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday, July 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The impasse arrives after lawmakers toiled away into the weekend over their proposal to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections. Republicans including Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah initially hoped to finalize a more robust blueprint as soon as Monday so that the long-stalled debate could finally start, but the prospect now seems unlikely given the sheer scope of policy obstacles that negotiators must resolve.

Lawmakers must still sort through lingering disputes over how to spend billions of dollars to upgrade the country’s railways, for example, along with thorny policy issues around broadband spending — including efforts by Democrats to ensure Internet access is affordable.

Both sides also have failed to come to terms on the formula for doling out money to improve the nation’s highways, as well as the exact funding available for water improvements. And lawmakers remain at odds over provisions sought by Democrats that aim to ensure any federal spending to improve infrastructure will pay workers prevailing wages to do the job.

Four sources familiar with the negotiations described the policy spats, requesting anonymity to discuss the private, fragile, and fast-moving Senate talks. One Democratic aide said that party lawmakers had presented a counter-offer late Sunday addressing these and other issues. A Republican source, however, described the Democratic proposal on Monday morning as discouraging at this stage in the debate.

“If this is going to be successful, the White House will need to show more flexibility as Republicans have done and listen to the members of the group that produced this framework,” the Republican aide said.

With tensions spilling into public view, the standoffs threatened to cast a pall over the 10 Democrats and Republicans that have been toiling for months on a roughly $1 trillion outline to improve the nation’s inner-workings. Such a collapse could present political headaches for the White House, in particular, after President Biden and his top aides invested considerable time and attention to working alongside Congress in pursuit of a bipartisan deal.

“I’m always optimistic,” Biden told reporters Monday during an event in the Rose Garden.

For the moment, the clock is ticking on the Senate’s efforts, as Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) still aims to complete work on the infrastructure proposal before lawmakers depart for their planned August recess. Schumer also intends to advance second, roughly $3.5 trillion package that encompasses the elements of Biden’s economic agenda that are ultimately left out of any new bipartisan public-works deal.

“We have reached a critical moment. The bipartisan group of senators has had nearly five weeks of negotiation,” Schumer said on the chamber floor Monday. Signaling the Senate could stay in session into the weekend and its upcoming summer break to get the proposal done, the leader added: “It’s time for everyone to get to yes and produce an outcome for the American people.”

Schumer sought to take the first step last week, moving to hold a key procedural vote to begin debate on infrastructure. But his early gambit failed, as Republicans voted against proceeding on the grounds that the infrastructure bill hadn’t even been written.

In its defeat, Romney joined about a dozen Republicans in pledging to supply the necessary votes to commence the chamber’s work on infrastructure as soon as this week, once negotiators finished working through their disagreements. Lawmakers involved in the talks, including Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), tried to sound an optimistic note about their prospects this weekend as they raced to meet their own, loose goal of releasing substantive text by Monday.

“We’re down to the last couple of items, and I think you’re going to see a bill Monday afternoon,” Warner said.

But a swift resolution seemed increasingly unlikely as the Senate prepared to return to work — and Democrats and Republicans openly resumed swiping at each other. A key rift emerged Monday over water spending. The early infrastructure outline produced by lawmakers and the White House in June pegged such spending at $55 billion, but some Democrats seek additional money on top of that to fund existing federal programs and address issues including the replacement of lead pipes nationally.

Democrats say Republicans agreed to boosting water spending, yet Romney reneged on the deal. Romney’s top aides, however, decried the allegations as “laughably false” — and charged that Democrats instead had violated the bipartisan agreement the lot of 10 lawmakers had reached in June.

Republican and Democratic negotiators also remain locked in a dispute over the ratio of highway to transit funding, according to aides familiar with the negotiations. In the past, the federal government has given transit roughly a dollar for every four that highways receives, but both sides have accused the other of trying to alter that convention in the current talks.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), the top GOP member on the Banking Committee, which sets transit policy, said Sunday that Republicans had offered a 35 percent bump in regular transit spending plus billions more as part of the bipartisan infrastructure talks, even though transit agencies received $70 billion in coronavirus-related aid. Toomey said Democrats had rejected that offer.

“Nobody’s talking about cutting transit,” Toomey said on CNN’s State of the Union. “The question is how many tens of billions of dollars on top of the huge increase that they have already gotten is sufficient?”

A Republican aide familiar with the negotiations said the 35 percent figure applied to the largest pot of transit funds, but it leaves unresolved any increase to major capital grant program for transit.