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Bipartisan group reaches a deal on infrastructure proposal

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Washington — A bipartisan group of senators reached a deal Thursday on infrastructure legislation, after President Biden ended negotiations with a team of Republican senators on Tuesday. The group of five Republicans and five Democrats released a joint statement Thursday afternoon saying they had reached an agreement, although they did not offer any details about it.

"Our group - comprised of 10 Senators, 5 from each party - has worked in good faith and reached a bipartisan agreement on a realistic, compromise framework to modernize our nation's infrastructure and energy technologies. This investment would be fully paid for and not include tax increases," the senators said in a statement. The group consists of Republican Senators Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Rob Portman and Mitt Romney, and Democratic Senators Joe Manchin, Jeanne Shaheen, Kyrsten Sinema, Jon Tester and Mark Warner.

"We are discussing our approach with our respective colleagues, and the White House, and remain optimistic that this can lay the groundwork to garner broad support from both parties and meet America's infrastructure needs," the group said.

The bipartisan infrastructure group's plan includes $579 billion in new spending over five years, according to multiple sources. This is a significant increase from the offer by the group of Republican senators who had been negotiating with Mr. Biden, who offered $257 billion in new spending. The plan is focused on physical infrastructure and does not include tax increases. With the baseline included, the plan is approximately $974 billion over five years, or $1.2 trillion over eight.

Mr. Biden had previously lowered his proposal from $2.3 trillion to $1.7 trillion, and then earlier this week, he shut down negotiations with the Republican group because they were unwilling to increase new spending to a significant degree, the White House said.

White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement Thursday evening that White House staff were briefed by the Democratic senators in the group.

"The president appreciates the senators' work to advance critical investments we need to create good jobs, prepare for our clean energy future, and compete in the global economy. Questions need to be addressed, particularly around the details of both policy and pay-fors, among other matters," Bates said. "Senior White House staff and the Jobs Cabinet will work with the Senate group in the days ahead to get answers to those questions, as we also consult with other members in both the House and the Senate on the path forward."

Democrats and Republicans have sparred over how the proposal should be paid for, although there seemed to be some room for agreement on indexing the gas tax to inflation. Romney said the group is discussing this option, and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin told reporters that indexing the gas tax to inflation "ultimately has to happen."

However, it's unclear whether Mr. Biden will accept indexing the gas tax, because he may view this as a tax increase on most Americans — and he has vehemently reiterated that he is unwilling to raise any taxes on Americans making under $400,000 per year.

Some Democrats have also raised concerns about any agreement that may be reached by this bipartisan group of moderates, worrying it will not address some of the key provisions included in Mr. Biden's original infrastructure proposal.

"I think it's been made clear to those negotiators that we're rooting them on, but there's no guarantee that you can get 50 Democratic votes for the package they produce," Democratic Senator Chris Murphy told reporters at the Capitol on Thursday, saying he was concerned climate-related provisions and certain transit improvements might be excluded.

Any final infrastructure legislation would require 60 votes to advance in the Senate, and Democrats have a narrow 50-seat majority, meaning they need 10 Republicans to support the bill. The bipartisan group is trying to reach a deal that will be amenable to enough Republicans to reach that 60-vote threshold, instead of attempting to pass a bill through budget reconciliation, a lengthy and complicated process that would allow the legislation to be approved without any Republican votes.

But Murphy pointed out the negotiators cannot afford to lose any Democratic support either, if they want to gain the necessary 60 votes.

"I don't know that there's a scenario in which you can lose 10 Democrats, and get 60 votes in the Senate, so this package ultimately is going to have to have the sign off of every single Democrat," Murphy said, adding he believed "there aren't super high expectations" in the Democratic caucus about what the group would be able to produce.

In a tweet on Friday, Murphy expressed further skepticism about going the bipartisan route instead of passing a larger bill through reconciliation.

"Why let Republicans decide the size of an infrastructure bill when reconciliation is a perfectly legitimate process (used unapologetically by the GOP when they were in power) to do a bill that will actually make a difference? It's not cheating to use the rules," Murphy said.

HHS Secretary Becerra Testifies Before Senate Appropriations Subcommittee
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, speaks during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, June 9, 2021.  Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters on Thursday that Democrats were proceeding along "two tracks": trying to craft a bipartisan deal, and preparing to use the reconciliation process.

"Both are moving forward," Schumer said.

Several Democrats have raised concerns about climate provisions falling by the wayside in any eventual deal.

"From my perspective, no climate, no deal," said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts. Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico told reporters he would be willing to address climate-related infrastructure in a second bill, but it had to be addressed.

"At the end of the day, as part of this process, whether that's two bills or one, I don't really care, but if climate isn't really addressed in a robust way I think we will have failed," Heinrich said.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand also expressed concern that negotiators would excise "human" infrastructure measures from the proposal, such as expanding home care for elderly and disabled individuals.

"I really believe we have a moment in time right now where we need a bold response, one that actually acknowledges the severe decline in our economic strength and stability, and the decline in all aspects of infrastructure — not just our hard traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges and sewers and high speed rail and rural broadband and IT — all essential, but we saw during the pandemic that the softer side the human infrastructure, really, was lacking," Gillibrand told reporters on Thursday.

Gillibrand noted that millions of women lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic because they needed to remain home as primary caretakers of elderly relatives or children whose schools were closed. She blamed this loss on the lack of a national paid leave, and of "protected and funded" daycare.

"If you aren't intending to rebuild all of the infrastructure to get the economy back up and running, then you're really preferencing just some workers, and you're not actually serious about a full economic recovery," Gillibrand argued. Mr. Biden's $1.7 trillion American Jobs Plan is accompanied by a $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, which deals with some of the "human" infrastructure priorities like child care and health care — but is even less likely to be supported by Republicans than the jobs plan.

"I worry about time being wasted. Even if our Republican colleagues [work in] good faith, we simply do not have the time to delay," Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told reporters.

The progressive advocacy group MoveOn announced on Friday that it was launching a six-figure campaign to urge members of Congress to move forward with reconciliation.

"We've waited long enough. Now is the time for action. Republicans are more interested in obstructing and delaying Biden's agenda than solving today's problems," Rahna Epting, executive director of MoveOn, said in a statement. "The idea that Republican Senators will support anything close to what is needed in this moment is simply not realistic. Neither those who need this help nor Democrats in Congress have one more minute to waste with Republican obstruction."

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