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Bipartisan talks on infrastructure heat up as Biden prepares for big push


As the White House intensifies conversations with key Republicans on infrastructure, a small, bipartisan group of senators is in the early stages of seeing if they might be able to break loose consensus on their own plan.

Two senators — a Republican and a Democrat — warned the talks are in their infancy but could provide a framework if they were actually successful to charting a path forward that could win bipartisan support on areas like transportation infrastructure, broadband and water infrastructure. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana stressed the talks haven’t resulted in any agreement yet, but the group of roughly a dozen members, which include many of the same members who have been part of the broader 20-person bipartisan group that has met regularly, has signaled a strong willingness to break the partisan gridlock that settled in after Democrats passed Biden’s Covid relief bill without a single Republican vote.

“Some of us are focused on trying to put some numbers together,” one Republican senator who spoke on the condition of anonymity told CNN. “We’ve met a couple of times.

Tester, who is part of the talks, told CNN, “I have not seen anything on paper.”

He estimated it was about 10 members, but said he expected they would share it with more members as they made progress.

“It’s smaller than the 20, although the 20 will probably be in on it before it’s done,” Tester said.

The effort could be bolstered by a recent uptick in talks between the White House and key committee Republicans, including Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virgnia, both of whom have said they’ve been in regular conversations both at the staff and member level since releasing their own $568 billion infrastructure proposal last week.

The recent surge in bipartisan activity may just be a recognition of the political reality.

The margins for Democrats are excruciatingly thin in both the House and the Senate even if they wanted to go it alone. Depending on when an infrastructure proposal came to the floor in the House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would just have two or three votes she could lose in her chamber. And in the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can’t lose a single member and still pass the bill through the budget process known as reconciliation. Add to that the reality that the political dynamics of infrastructure scramble regional and ideological lines, and the work for leadership grows.

Already, Democrats in the House and Senate are divided over key issues like whether to do away with the $10,000 deduction on state and local taxes — an issue sometimes referred to as SALT — which affects many Americans living in states with higher local taxes. And while some Democrats are committed to dealing with prescription drug pricing through an infrastructure bill, others argue the issue should be its own package. Wrestling with those divisions will prove challenging over the next several months.

That’s why some Republicans argue the White House has seemed more seriously engaged in bipartisanship this time around rather than back in January and February with the Covid relief bill.

“I think there is a sincere effort on their part to see how big a package we would be willing to put together in a bipartisan way,” one Republican senator who is engaged in talks with the White House told CNN on the condition of background to freely discuss their conversations. “Generally, if I was betting, the leader believes that they would only go the bipartisan way if they decide they are going to have a really hard time holding all 50 votes on the package they put together, and that is probably realistic to think that.”

Democratic members and aides insist that the order, number of bills and what will ultimately be included in an infrastructure proposal is still an open question on Capitol Hill, but the flurry of bipartisan conversations is a signal that the option of bringing a smaller, more targeted bill to the floor that both Republicans and Democrats can support is not entirely off the table. While the White House unveiled a $2.3 trillion proposal in March and will unwrap another more socially focused infrastructure package this week, Democratic lawmakers are still in the early stages of deciding how to turn Biden’s plans into legislative reality.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland who’s chair of a transportation subcommittee, said Tuesday on CNN that he was confident there could be strong bipartisan support for a transportation infrastructure bill out of his committee, but he warned that the decision of whether to bring it to the floor as a standalone package will ultimately be made by leadership and the President.

“I don’t know how these all get married,” Cardin said. “At the end of the day, that decision has not yet been made, so I don’t know whether it will be taken off the floor separately from the rest, but I do know we can make progress on a bipartisan basis to deal with infrastructure.”

Schumer has also signaled in recent days that he wants to test bipartisanship, committing to bringing a bipartisan infrastructure water bill to the floor this week.

“This water infrastructure bill is a core component of the Republican infrastructure proposal released last week. So I hope this legislation will serve as a starting point for our two parties to collaborate on infrastructure when and where we can,” Schumer said on the floor this week.

While progressives have signaled an interest in passing the legislation in one mega bill, moderates have argued they’d be more comfortable breaking the package in two, with the first piece focused more on physical infrastructure, in an effort to attract Republican support.

“My preference is to do this in a bipartisan way,” Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona, told reporters. “What would be enough for me would be working together to come to a consensus with Republicans to decide what should be in the bill, because these are really important projects. … When I think of infrastructure, I think of physical things.”

Republicans insist that anything they do work on with Democrats should be narrow, but they argue that doesn’t prevent Democrats from passing another bill down the line that deals with paid leave or a permanent expansion of the child tax credit through the budget process with just Democratic votes. Capito said she wouldn’t shy from working with Democrats even if they passed a physical infrastructure bill with Republicans only to turn around and do another broader, worker-focused bill next.

“If we can find a core, physical infrastructure package that we have done many, many years in the past, and it is robust and it’s paid for and we can do it bipartisan, yeah. … I don’t know why we wouldn’t want to be part of the solution and take home to our individual states, ‘Look, this is where we believe the greatest needs are,’ ” Capito said. “A win is a win.”

Behind the scenes, members and aides say Schumer has encouraged Democrats to continue talks with their Republican counterparts on infrastructure, with one Democratic aide telling CNN it came up as recently as at last week’s caucus lunch. But progressives warn that Democrats shouldn’t move to the middle just for the sake of making the bill bipartisan, and many warn that the talks cannot go on forever.

“I believe in bipartisanship, but I believe most importantly in getting the job done and doing what the American people need,” said Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats. “If Republicans are serious about addressing the major crises facing this country, that’s great. Let’s work with them. If they aren’t, we have to go forward alone.”

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