Biden prepared to extend infrastructure talks

The White House’s flexibility with pushing the deadline would bring the talks into a familiar stage of negotiations in Washington, in which each side tries to deflect blame for being the one that gave up on the deal. Republican Senators are holding a news conference Thursday morning. Should their new offer prove inadequate, the White House could decide simply to stick to its Memorial Day weekend deadline.

The decision about how long to continue comes as progressives are expressing growing frustration with the pace of negotiations and fear that cutting a deal with the GOP would mean sacrificing spending on climate-focused initiatives. Many remain wary that the entirety of Biden’s plans could be passed in follow-up legislation with only Democratic support.

Undergirding Democrats’ worries are the lessons from former President Barack Obama’s first year, when Republicans drew out the negotiating process around healthcare reform for months before voting against the president’s signature bill and then turning the legislation into a political cudgel for the better part of a decade.

“Even in the context of a Covid recovery, a trillion dollars is a wide gap,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in an interview, referencing the difference in top-line spending totals between the GOP offer and the White House proposal. “Now there are several groups within groups positioning themselves as the lead negotiators on infrastructure. We are rapidly approaching the witching hour.”

A growing number of progressive leaders and groups want Biden to cut Republicans loose right at his original deadline if a deal remains elusive. But Schatz said another couple of meetings, or a week of talks, would be “reasonable.”

“But lacking any intervening momentum we have to get pragmatic here and decide whether we want to pass something or not,” he added.

The White House all along has maintained it’s genuine about trying to forge a compromise with Senate Republicans, contending that it would make the bill more politically durable and that it was important for the country to see that bipartisan agreement on major policy proposals can still happen. Karine Jean-Pierre, White House deputy press secretary, told reporters Wednesday that she wouldn’t pre-judge the coming GOP counteroffer, but cautioned that there wasn’t enough Covid-relief money to repurpose for infrastructure.

By the end of March, she said, nearly all of the $3 trillion in “pre-Rescue Plan Covid relief funding” was either obligated or is for SBA-backed small business loans known as the Paycheck Protection Program, unemployment insurance or nutrition assistance. Of the remaining five percent, the largest categories of potentially available funds are in accounts for healthcare provider relief, money for rural hospitals and disaster loans for small businesses.

“There are simply not hundreds of billions of dollars in Covid relief funds available to repurpose,” she said.

For weeks, White House officials had said they believed the GOP’s lead negotiator, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, was approaching the task in good faith. Separately, they were heartened by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s unanimous passage of a bipartisan bill to allocate $311 billion over five years for roads and highways.

Some have also bristled at the drumbeat of news media reports in recent weeks declaring a possible deal already dead. And other Democrats have grown increasingly annoyed at — what they view as — a strategy by Senate Republicans to paint Biden as more personally open to cutting a deal than his staff.

That was particularly true after Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Wednesday that Biden had communicated to Republicans that he “would like us to get close to” a $1 trillion deal, and that GOP lawmakers would “get near that neighborhood.” The White House would not comment on whether Biden himself communicated the number in private, and Biden told reporters this week that he was not going to negotiate through the press.

Blunt went on to claim that in the meeting between GOP senators and Biden on May 13, the president was willing to allow the money Congress already spends on infrastructure each year, some tens of billions, to count toward the total. The senator insisted that “immediately after that, [Biden’s] staff who were not in the meeting except for [National Economic Council Director] Brian Deese, began to question whether that is where they’d be willing to go.”