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Biden’s negotiations with Republicans are making some Democrats anxious

Democrats are weighing the costs of negotiating with Republicans on infrastructure.

US President Joe Biden meets with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and others to discuss an infrastructure bill in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 13, 2021.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

As the Biden administration’s infrastructure negotiations with Senate Republicans picked up with a $1.7 trillion counteroffer on Friday, some congressional Democrats are getting antsy.

“We move as quickly as we can on going big, we move as quickly as we can on negotiations,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told Vox on Wednesday. “At some point, if they won’t go where we believe the country needs to go and where the country seems to want to go, then we take off.”

President Biden issued his opening bid last month — the $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan — and the GOP responded with a $568 billion infrastructure counteroffer a few weeks ago. (Separately, the White House also introduced a $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, focusing on child care and education.)

The new $1.7 trillion White House counteroffer settles for the $65 billion Republicans floated for broadband funding, and pares back the amount of funding for roads and bridges from Biden’s initial proposal of $159 billion to $120 billion in new investment. It also cuts research and development from a proposed package, vowing to put it in other congressional bills going forward. But the president’s counter keeps funding for clean energy, removing lead pipes from America’s drinking water systems, and boosting long-term care workers.

“We recognize that still leaves us far apart,” a White House memo to Republicans obtained by Vox reads. “However, in service of trying to advance these negotiations, the President has asked us to respond with changes to his American Jobs Plan, in hopes that these changes will spur further bipartisan cooperation and progress.”

For their part, Republicans don’t seem all that happy. A statement released by a spokesperson for Senate Republicans Friday said, “based on today’s meeting, the groups seem further apart after two meetings with White House staff than they were after one meeting with President Biden.”

Democrats on the Hill say they support the White House actively talking to Republicans. But some are also anxious that negotiating with Republicans just won’t meet the needs of the moment — whether it’s on climate change or jobs.

“I don’t think it’s our job to pass something just so that we can say, ‘Well, that piece over there is bipartisan,’ and wait for the pat on the back,” moderate Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) told reporters recently. “I think people want us to get big things done.”

Democrats’ other option is budget reconciliation, a mechanism that would allow them to pass a massive budget bill with just 51 votes rather than the required 60 — mostly likely on party lines. This is what Democrats did for Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package, and they have at least one more opportunity to do it again before the 2022 midterms.

The Biden administration is caught between two promises: working with Republicans on Capitol Hill, and vowing to pass an ambitious economic agenda that reroutes the American economy toward clean energy and passes billions to make child care and long-term care more affordable.

Some progressive climate groups are arguing that a bipartisan deal could significantly hurt the president’s climate agenda. They argue Biden needs to invest heavily in electric charging stations, and to pass a clean electricity standard to get to his goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. Biden’s counteroffer largely leaves his environmental provisions intact but would forgo a $180 billion investment into research and development — money that could be key for the Energy Department’s development of new technology to combat climate change.

“If you spend money on roads without making major investments in either mileage standards or deployment of EVs or investing in putting in new standards to ensure clean electricity by 2030 or 2035, you’ll be going backward on climate,” said Jamal Raad, co-founder of the climate group Evergreen Action and a former top staffer for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Still, as much as some Democrats worry that negotiating with Republicans wastes valuable time, some of Biden’s closest allies on Capitol Hill say it is simply part of a process that could make moderate Democrats accept reconciliation, if and when that happens.

“When the president announced a big and bold proposal, the American Jobs Plan, several Democrats promptly said, ‘I will not vote for this — for reconciliation, a Democrat-only bill — unless there is a serious and determined effort first for bipartisanship,’” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told Vox. “It seems to me the issue isn’t the White House not going bold; the issue is one of order and timing.”

Bipartisan negotiations on infrastructure are ongoing

The main Republican negotiator is Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. Capito is the ranking Republican member on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which has purview over five-year reauthorization bills for surface and water infrastructure.

Capito and other Republicans who are ranking members on key committees had a nearly two-hour meeting with Biden at the White House earlier this month. The senators have also had subsequent conversations with members of Biden’s Cabinet and senior staff including White House counselor Steve Ricchetti, director of legislative affairs Louisa Terrell, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

While the main difference between Republicans and Democrats is over proposed corporate tax hikes to pay for the projects, there are other areas of disagreement. In staff-level negotiations between Senate Democrats and Republicans on the five-year surface transportation bill, Republicans have been pushing back on climate resilience provisions, a Democratic Senate staffer told Vox. Democrats see infrastructure as a key way to make progress on cutting down on fossil fuel emissions in the transportation sector — investing in 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the nation’s roadways to encourage more people to switch to cleaner cars.

“I’m wary of anything that has Capito’s fingerprints,” said Raad, the co-founder of Evergreen Action. “It would not just hurt our ability to hit our NDC [the US target to limit its carbon emissions], it would take us backward.”

Sen. Brown says he thinks the Biden administration should be trying to find common ground with Republicans at least to prove they tried. But Brown clearly believes that shouldn’t entail significant concessions, especially on climate.

“I assume they’ll obstruct on climate,” he told Vox. “We’ll try to come to bipartisan agreement; I don’t expect it [to happen]. We move forward in a big way.”

Negotiations take time — and that’s a risk

Biden has said he wants to see significant progress on bipartisan talks by Memorial Day, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has outlined July 4 as when she’d like to see an infrastructure bill get a vote in Congress, but that date could also be pushed if necessary.

It’s possible that Democrats were padding extra time with those initial deadlines, expecting negotiations would move it back. Still, a razor-thin majority in the House and Senate makes the risk of taking additional time a high-stakes strategy. When they will introduce the first draft of a bill is still unclear.

“I can’t give you a specific answer because I don’t know the answer,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told Vox, adding that appropriations work in the House will begin in earnest in July. “We’re going to have some time available to do the work of the Jobs Plan and the Families Plan in that time frame if, in fact, we can get agreement. And, if we can’t get agreement, work with the administration on how we’ll move forward.”

House Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth (D-KY), who will be overseeing the budget reconciliation process in the House if Democrats do indeed pursue budget reconciliation as an option to pass their infrastructure bill, told reporters, “I think they want to give a reasonable chance for there to be a bipartisan bill. I think probably, sooner rather than later there will be a decision.”

Even if Democrats do decide to do reconciliation rather than move a bipartisan bill through regular order, there’s still a lot to be decided, including whether they’ll move one massive bill containing both the American Jobs Plan and Biden’s American Families Plan that deals with affordable child care and education, or split them into separate bills.

“I think it would be difficult to do two. I know there’s this idea about just doing physical infrastructure in one smaller bipartisan bill, but I don’t like that idea,” said Casey, who is shepherding the American Families Plan portion of Biden’s package through the Senate and wants to see both planks of Biden’s economic package passed through reconciliation.

The next week will be pivotal for Biden’s big shot on the economy. But the clock is ticking.