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Infrastructure talks stuck in limbo but back from the brink

By Lauren Fox, CNN

After bipartisan infrastructure talks went to the brink Monday, negotiators are trying to put things back on track, returning to the arduous work of ironing out their remaining differences, recommitted to the painstaking work that has to be done if this group is ever going to clinch a deal.

Bottom line: They aren’t there and may never get there, but here’s what to watch.

The people

At this point, the bipartisan group has turned some of the heaviest lifting over to the top GOP negotiator, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, and White House aide Steve Ricchetti. Both men are practiced legislators and deal makers, and both are more interested in cementing a lasting legacy than winning the day.

They spent hours walking through exactly where to go from here Tuesday night and have been the point people for this negotiation for days. In reality, a room of 10 lawmakers is a hard place to cut a final agreement and the one-on-one effort is a sign that this negotiation is still very real.

The President also privately met with the top Democratic negotiator, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, on Tuesday to underscore his commitment to this process.

That’s not to say a deal is happening

The outstanding issues here are numerous and tough to bridge, hitting up against the fundamental differences that define the two parties.

As one aide put it to CNN, the end of a negotiations like this is always the hardest when both sides feel like they have already compromised so much and giving another inch feels untenable. Complicating this deal further is the backlash pouring in from committee chairmen who felt iced out of this process and are now lobbing arrows.

Pay attention to Sen. Tom Carper here, a Delaware Democrat and the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Carper’s been a Biden cheerleader in the Senate, but he’s not holding his nose on this one so far.

“There are a number of outstanding issues still on water, transit, climate and environmental justice,” a spokesperson for Carper told CNN’s Manu Raju. “Senator Carper still has concerns.”

The sticking points

The group has yet to figure out how to settle regulatory issues related to broadband funding and is still caught up in a disagreement about how much money for transportation should be allocated to highway funding vs. transit.

“The Democrats always want to treat telecoms like utilities, and it is always a big fight,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Republican whip told CNN about the broadband disagreement.

The group is also still not settled on how to resolve Carper’s concerns about funding the water bill and are working through those issues.

It’s the same sticking points we’ve been talking about for days, and the fact they aren’t resolved reveals a reality of this process: this is a massive bill, a huge investment and if passed and signed into law, it would be a legacy defining bill for Biden.

These talks aren’t happening in a vacuum and even when the bipartisan group settles on something, they have to confer with chairs and then their leadership. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office are very much part of this process and while ultimately that takes longer in the short term, it’s the only realistic way that this actually gets 60 votes on the floor.

The timing

Aides and members recognize right now that Schumer doesn’t have a way to pull out of this bipartisan process.

There’s grumbling it’s taking too long. Progressives were ready to move on in May and the August recess is two weeks away. But, Schumer has no choice, but to let this group breathe and work itself out. The President is still invested in this process and most importantly several of his members are too. Sen. Joe Manchin, the moderate Democrat from West Virginia, has been asked 75 ways whether he’ll back the $3.5 trillion Democratic budget, and every time he says he’s busy with the bipartisan deal first.

On Tuesday, Manchin warned that if this bipartisan deal falls apart, it makes everything harder.

In other words, the tighter Schumer tries to control this, the longer it’s going to take.

Schumer learned that lesson last week by forcing a procedural vote that failed, and he learned it again when Democrats tried to speed the group along with a “global offer” that Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican in the group, argued threw the bipartisan group “for a loop.”

At this point, Schumer is not saying what the timeline is and that’s because if he wants a bigger reconciliation deal, he knows it’s not up to him right now.

“I’ve done everything to speed them along. First with the motion to proceed on Wednesday. Second. with the global offer we made Sunday night,” Schumer said. “We are getting close, and I am hopeful we can get this done soon.”

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CNN’s Phil Mattingly contributed to this report.

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