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'A big divide': Biden-GOP infrastructure talks sputter as Democrats ponder going it alone

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, says his recommendation to the president is that "it's time to move on" from bipartisan negotiations.
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WASHINGTON — Infrastructure negotiations between President Joe Biden and a group of Senate Republicans are sputtering, increasing the prospects that Democrats will abandon bipartisan talks and try to pass a package without the GOP.

The divisions — over everything from the price tag to the meaning of the word "infrastructure" — sharpened this week after Republicans rejected the White House’s offer of a $1.7 trillion package, down from the original request of $2.25 trillion.

Republicans said the counteroffer remained too big. Democrats accused GOP lawmakers of refusing to accept good faith concessions. A collapse in talks is likely to result in Democrats opting for a parliamentary maneuver to pass a bill on their own.

“We’re too far apart,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. “It’s so clear that the Republicans aren't willing to engage in meaningful bipartisan compromises on big things.”

Whitehouse added that Biden is “entitled to his judgment on this. But if I were in a room with him, I'd say it's time to move on.”

The process hasn't come to a complete halt. The six Republicans involved in negotiations met Tuesday to discuss their counteroffer to the White House, saying they expect to release it Thursday morning.

Several sticking points remain, including how much to spend and on what programs, whether redirected funds from previous bills should count in the price tag, how to pay for it, whether taxes on the wealthy should be raised, whether user fees would harm the middle class and the necessity of clean energy projects.

“You never say never around here,” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee. “But there's a big divide there. I think it has to be a lot smaller than what they're talking about. I don't think you need $2 trillion.”

Shelby said he doesn't think Democrats have enough support among their own members to pass a large package without Republicans — as they did on the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill.

“Oh, I don't think they could do that,” he said. “They could try, but I don’t think it would go.”

While neither the White House nor Senate GOP leaders are officially pulling the plug on negotiations, Democrats are privately discussing whether to trigger a special filibuster-proof process as a backup option in case they are unable to reach a deal. Democratic leadership staff had a meeting with the Senate parliamentarian late last week to discuss the potential process.

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, a moderate Democrat, said it “probably” makes sense to start the process to allow Democrats to act alone in case the bipartisan talks fail.

But he said that decision is up to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “He's the one that's going to make that determination,” Tester said.

Democrats are still considering approving a smaller bipartisan deal on physical infrastructure like roads and bridges, and then trying to act on their own to approve projects like clean energy investments, child care and elder care in a separate package that can pass without Republicans.

“That’s one option,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a member of Democratic leadership. “We haven’t decided yet.”

But she acknowledged there may not be enough Democratic support.

“We have to make sure we can go it alone on the rest, and that’s not clear yet,” Stabenow said.

Senate Democrats would need unanimous support among their 50 members to begin the reconciliation process, and multiple sources said they don't have it yet. Centrists like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have insisted on giving bipartisanship a try first.

Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is among the six GOP negotiators talking to Biden, said there are “fundamental” divides that remain over broad parameters, including the Republican refusal to undo the 2017 tax law and Biden’s insistence on paying for it by raising taxes on upper earners and corporations.

“That’s a big deal — like, that’s a red line. We have a couple of others, we’ve been really clear about them,” Toomey said. “So I’m a little bit disappointed that we still have some of these fundamental things unresolved.”

Neither side is giving up on the possibility of a modest bipartisan deal and a separate Democrats-only package. It would enable Republicans to go home and attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies for popular new infrastructure projects while still saying they fought Democrats’ expensive and liberal plans when it comes to issues like child care and education subsidies.

“My impression of President Biden was — let's see what we can agree to,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who's also in the group of six, said. “And then, we understood that he would try to do the rest of it without us if that was the way they needed to do the rest of it.”

And separate from the group negotiating with the White House, a second bipartisan group of eight senators are holding weekly meetings to try to find compromises on infrastructure.

“We have a group of four Democrats and four Republicans that are working together on a proposal which may come into play but that’s the back burner, the front burner of course is what is going on with Shelley Moore Capito and the White House,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah., said Tuesday. He added that it’s “unlikely” he’d support a proposal as high as $1 trillion — something Sen. Wicker, R-Miss., floated earlier in the day.

The White House has said it wants to see progress by Memorial Day. Democrats haven't set a specific deadline but the push to go it alone is likely to grow quickly after that.

"I would hope it's sooner than that, but let's just say mid-June to early July," Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., told NBC News. "I keep saying to myself, to use an old expression, there's going to be a fish or cut bait day. That's not June 1. But it's also, we shouldn't wait till August."