Infrastructure negotiations: 4 things to watch on Capitol Hill

Congressional Republicans have criticized President Joe Biden‘s roughly $2 trillion proposal focused on infrastructure and the climate crisis as a far-reaching wish list of liberal priorities and have taken issue with how the plan would be paid for.

At the same time, however, they have made clear they do believe there is room for bipartisan consensus on infrastructure as members of both parties have long agreed that investment is needed to help shore up and rebuild the country’s crumbling roads and bridges.

Now, GOP lawmakers are grappling with the question of what exactly they would support, with some openly discussing a potential price tag far lower than what the White House is pushing.

Here are several of the latest developments on the policy debate:

GOP senator floats ‘sweet spot’ between $600 billion and $800 billion

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, suggested during an interview on CNBC on Tuesday that a “sweet spot” for a bipartisan deal could come in at $600 billion to $800 billion.

“What I’d like to do is get back to what I consider the regular definition of infrastructure in terms of job creation. So that’s roads, bridges, ports, airports — including broadband into that — water infrastructure,” Capito said during the interview. “I think the best way for us to do this is hit the sweet spot of where we agree, and I think we can agree on a lot of the measures moving forward. How much? I would say probably into the $600 or $800 billion, but we haven’t put all of that together yet.”

The comments show that Republicans are discussing in specific terms what they would accept as a potential alternative or counter to the President’s plan. But the range Capito cited is significantly less than Biden has proposed, underscoring a clear partisan divide over cost.

But there are signs Republicans haven’t reached consensus

In a sign that Republicans haven’t reached their own consensus yet, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah told reporters on Wednesday that he thinks his Republican Senate colleague’s potential $800 billion top-line idea “seems a little high.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, on the other hand, told reporters, “If it’s for roads and bridges, I’d be pretty good with it, and associated things,” when asked about the possibility of an $800 billion package.

Romney also told CNN that a group of Republicans are trying to work on their own infrastructure plan.

The longer the negotiation effort goes on without Republicans having a concrete counteroffer, the more pressure they will face to come up with an alternative proposal.

GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska put it this way to reporters: “We must present an alternative. If we think this is too big, how would we pare it down, how would we define it? How would we pay for it?”

What Sanders’ comments say about where Democrats stand

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, pushed back on a possible price tag in the $600 billion to $800 billion range, saying that figure would be “nowhere near what we need.”

“We’ve been talking about infrastructure, physical infrastructure for literally decades, Democrats and Republicans. We have major crises in terms of roads, bridges, water systems, affordable housing, you name it, that is nowhere near what we need,” Sanders said when asked about a potential $600 billion figure. “Not to mention, of course, we’ve got to address the existential threat of climate change.”

Sanders is further to the left than many Senate Democrats with whom he caucuses, but his comments nevertheless underscore a widely shared feeling among Democrats that it’s important to go big when it comes to infrastructure, a key priority for the party and the President, and that infrastructure, to them, doesn’t just mean roads and bridges anymore.

Democrats are making clear their unwillingness to significantly scale back their demands in the face of GOP pushback.

“The bottom line is we have major crises and we have to deal with them,” Sanders said.

Prospects for bipartisanship narrow

Amid these divides over policy, scope, size and price tag, the prospects for a bipartisan deal are swiftly narrowing on Capitol Hill.

Despite overtures from the White House to host Republicans in the Oval Office and Biden’s continued promise to reach across the aisle, Republicans are skeptical the meetings will lead to substantive progress. Here are some examples of what GOP lawmakers are saying:

  • Capito lamented the way negotiations crumbled over the Covid-19 relief bill, which passed Congress on a party-line vote. “Here is where the disconnect that I am concerned about is: We are going (to the White House), we are negotiating, the President is being very sincere, but in the end, we get rolled because there is a partisan process. You saw that happen under Covid, and I am concerned about it,” she said.
  • Senate Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota questioned Democrats’ interpretation of what infrastructure means: “The question is whether they are willing to do a truly infrastructure bill or whether they want to do the big government bill, and if they want to do the big government bill it is hard to see how you would get a lot of Republicans to vote for what they are talking about.”
  • Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas told CNN that so far he’s “seen no evidence” that Biden plans to involve Republicans and modify the bill, pointing to the drafting of the proposal. “I hope to get a bipartisan infrastructure package, but I have not felt it,” he said.

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