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Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds

The Hill
The Hill
 2021-07-26
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A bipartisan Senate infrastructure group is struggling to break an entrenched stalemate over the final details of their $1.2 trillion proposal, sparking an increasingly public blame game between Democrats and Republicans.

The bipartisan group had hoped to return to Washington on Monday with a final agreement in order to quickly start debate on the Senate floor. Instead, the talks appear to be on shaky grounds, with each side accusing the other of moving the goalposts.

A Democratic source close to the talks said on Monday morning that Democratic negotiators and the White House had made a "global offer" to Republicans on Sunday night that would have addressed a number of unresolved issues.

But Republicans appear to be rejecting that offer, arguing that it goes back on details that had already been agreed to by the bipartisan group during their weeks of closed-door negotiations.

“The ‘global offer’ we received from the White House and Chuck Schumer was discouraging since it attempts to reopen numerous issues the bipartisan group had already agreed to," said a GOP source familiar with the talks.

“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 source added.

The back-and-forth is a U-turn from just Sunday, when Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) both predicted that the deal was largely in hand and could be ready to go by this week.

Portman said during an interview with ABC News that they were "about 90 percent of the way there," while Warner suggested to Fox News that the group could be ready to go on Monday.

And 11 GOP senators previously wrote to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) late last week indicating that they could be ready to start debate as soon as Monday.

Now the group appears nearly certain to miss that goal amid rising tensions and fresh questions about if the talks could collapse altogether. The core group of 10 Senate negotiators, including Portman and Warner, are expected to meet again on Monday to try to break the stalemate.

Sticking points are piling up.

Portman, during the ABC News interview, pointed to transit as the main unresolved issue.

But sources pointed to a laundry list of other unresolved points of contention, including money for broadband, highways and bridges, using unspent COVID-19 relief funds to help pay for the bipartisan deal and Republicans wanting to waive federally mandated wage requirements for federally funded projects.

The Democratic source close to the talks said on Monday that Democrats had agreed to accept the GOP offer on highways as long as Republicans moved toward their position on transit. But Republicans don't appear likely to accept that, with the GOP source countering that they had made an offer on transit on Wednesday and were "met with silence for three days."

Democrats have also raised concerns that the bipartisan deal wouldn't fully fund a water bill previously passed by the Senate or provide an additional $15 billion for treating water contamination caused by lead pipes and accused Republicans of proposing something "completely unworkable."

After Democrats accused Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), one of the negotiators, of walking away from a deal on the water funding portion, describing it as "goalposts moving," Romney's office called the accusation "laughably false" and accused Schumer of requesting an additional $15 billion in funding.

"This is a direct violation of the bipartisan agreement," they added.

The bipartisan deal is at the center of Biden and Senate Democrats' infrastructure strategy, with the president joining the Senate negotiators at the White House last month to say they had reached an agreement on a framework for a bill that would cost $1.2 trillion over eight years.

Schumer has pledged to hold a vote on the bipartisan deal and a budget resolution that greenlights a separate $3.5 trillion plan that Democrats are expected to pass along party lines before letting the Senate leave for a weeks-long summer break.

That recess had been expected to start on Aug. 9, but senators have warned they could lose at least the first week as talks drag on.

Meanwhile, former President Trump , who maintains a tight grip on the party's base, is publicly pushing Republicans to reject the bipartisan agreement and hold off on cutting a deal until they are back in the majority.

"Senate Republicans are being absolutely savaged by Democrats on the so-called 'bipartisan' infrastructure bill. Mitch McConnell and his small group of RINOs wants nothing more than to get a deal done at any cost to prove that he can work with the Radical Left Democrats," Trump said in a statement, adding that Republicans shouldn't let Democrats "play you for weak fools and losers!"

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