Still Talking: Biden, Republicans Agree To Keep At Infrastructure Negotiations

Jun 2, 2021
Originally published on June 2, 2021 6:42 pm

President Biden and Senate Republicans have agreed to continue negotiations on an infrastructure spending plan despite an ongoing split over the scope of the proposal and how to pay for it.

Biden hosted Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., the GOP's lead negotiator on infrastructure, at the White House on Wednesday, and the pair agreed to reconvene Friday as the window for a bipartisan deal appears to be narrowing.

The Biden administration aims to have an agreement this summer, and some fellow Democrats are urging the president to wrap up bipartisan talks.

"This afternoon, the president hosted Senator Capito for a constructive and frank conversation in the Oval Office about how we can drive economic growth and benefit America's middle class through investing in our infrastructure," the White House said in a statement.

During the roughly hourlong meeting Wednesday, Capito and Biden discussed the latest, $928 billion proposal from Republicans. Kelley Moore, a spokeswoman for Moore Capito, said the GOP negotiating team will convene ahead of Friday's meeting.

"Senator Capito reiterated to the president her desire to work together to reach an infrastructure agreement that can pass Congress in a bipartisan way," Moore said in a statement. "She also stressed the progress that the Senate has already made. Senator Capito is encouraged that negotiations have continued."

Wednesday's White House meeting was the latest attempt to bring Republicans and Democrats within a manageable range for true negotiations on infrastructure policy. So far the two sides have been stuck in the early stages of talks with nearly $1 trillion separating their proposals. They have also failed to agree on what should be included in an infrastructure bill.

The disagreement over the price tag was only partially alleviated last week, when GOP senators increased the overall size of their offer. Democrats were frustrated that Republicans are including hundreds of billions of dollars in investments Congress was already planning. The total new money in the latest GOP plan is $257 billion, a small fraction of what Biden has proposed.

Republicans are also planning to pay for the spending by repurposing money Congress already approved for coronavirus relief programs. That idea is a nonstarter for the vast majority of Democrats.

The White House told reporters last week that roughly 95% of the earlier $3 trillion COVID relief money was either already obligated as of March, or has been set aside for the Paycheck Protection Program, unemployment insurance or nutrition assistance.

"Of the remaining 5% the largest categories of unobligated balances are in the Heath Care Provider Relief Fund — funding for rural hospitals, health care providers and disaster loans for small businesses," a White House official said.

Biden is instead focused on increasing taxes on high-income earners and corporations.

Republicans are pressuring Democrats to remove social programs, like funding for child care and elder care, and environmental protection elements from the infrastructure talks and pursue them as separate legislation.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Fox News Sunday that the disagreement about how to categorize elements of Biden's plan is "philosophical," and he argued the elements the GOP opposes should remain in any infrastructure plan.

"We think of it as infrastructure because infrastructure is the foundation that lets people participate in the economy," Buttigieg said. "When you're taking care of a loved one, doing some of those things because you don't have the right kind of care structure to look after them and you can't even get a job because you're in this elder care situation — because somehow we're one of the only developed countries that doesn't take care of this — that's holding you back the same way it holds you back if you don't have a road or bridge to get to where you want to go."

Democrats could choose to package the more controversial provisions of their plan as separate legislation, but doing so would risk angering elements of their own base, whose votes will be necessary to get any legislation through the narrowly divided House and Senate.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Negotiations on infrastructure are still going. They continued today between President Biden and congressional Republicans. The two sides are hoping to bridge a nearly $1 trillion gap in their proposals and a major split over what infrastructure really includes. West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito and Biden met today at the White House. Both the White House and Capito's office reported they made some progress and agreed to reconnect on Friday after she briefs Republicans. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following the talks. She's here now.

Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: So they have met a few times now, Capito and Biden. Do we know if they're actually making progress?

SNELL: We know that they're trading ideas back and forth. But, you know, the White House staff really set a low bar for progress today. They said that they didn't expect them to really trade new ideas today. Republicans I talked to on Capitol Hill say the ball is basically in Biden's court right now because Republicans released a $928 billion proposal last week. But that proposal really only included about $250 billion in new spending, which is not a big jump to the middle when Biden is still at $1.7 trillion.

You know, all of this may feel slow, but it's not really uncommon for talks in Washington to work like this. Big deals rarely come together quickly, particularly when the political environment is so badly divided. So this is a little bit slow, but also a little bit commonplace.

KELLY: Okey-doke. All right. Now, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has a role here because, again, we're talking infrastructure...

SNELL: Right.

KELLY: He says they want to have a clear direction by next week - next week. Is that likely?

SNELL: You know, clear direction could mean just about anything, right? They could decide that they have a clear direction. They could decide that these talks are going well. But it is a bit of a mixed message. On the one hand, we're hearing that they're hopeful and that Capito and Biden seem amiable and friendly and that they talk frequently. But on the other hand, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters today that there is a limit to how long they're willing to have nice chats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEN PSAKI: I would say he wouldn't have been in the Senate for 36 years if he wasn't quite patient. So - but, you know, patience is not unending, and he wants to make progress. His only line in the sand is inaction.

SNELL: So yeah. The president is patient, according to Psaki, but, you know, they want to get a deal done. And they really need to get past all this general talk about the outlines of a deal and dig into specifics, like how much each individual program will get or how long the spending will last and, most importantly, how they'll pay for it.

KELLY: Right. I was going to ask - because there's what's in the deal and then there's how they're going to pay for their deal. Is there any progress on that question?

SNELL: No. And that really is shaping up to be the biggest hurdle, almost bigger than the size of the package itself, which we have already noted is a pretty huge difference, right? Democrats want to raise taxes, and Republicans want to take money Congress already approved for coronavirus relief and spend it on infrastructure. The idea came up last week at a press conference that Capito lead, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell fully embraced the idea today at a press conference back home in Kentucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: And what we would like to do on infrastructure was to add that repurposed money on top of it to give us a larger infrastructure package that we could hopefully credibly pay for.

SNELL: But Jack - you know, Democrats generally hate that idea for a few reasons. First, they say there really aren't any unspent COVID funds to speak of. There is some money that hasn't been sent out the door, but it's - you know, the vast majority of it is already allocated to programs. Plus, having this conversation about infrastructure and COVID relief really drags the two issues together. It ties kind of this supposedly bipartisan spending package into a fight over unemployment insurance and recovery payments, the child tax credit and state and local funding, which is something that McConnell himself stressed in Kentucky. So all of that acrimony and all of those fights become intertwined with infrastructure, which is hardly a recipe for a quick deal.

KELLY: So what are we watching for next?

SNELL: These talks, like I said, may feel like they're going on for a long time, but they may stretch into the summer. You know, that's certainly where we think the window is for this. Even if they do get a deal between Democrats and Republicans, that doesn't agree - guarantee agreement among Democrats. They would need support from all 50 Democrats plus 10 Republicans for this to pass in the Senate.

And some progressives are already tired of the talks. One of the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus tweeted that after the meeting, you know, it's time to stop wining and dining Republicans is how she put it. She says they aren't going to support it anyway. And she, you know, is basically ruling out the prospects for a deal. And it's hard to win support for a package full of concessions if a big chunk of Biden's party doesn't like the deal.

KELLY: NPR's Kelsey Snell - thank you, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.