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Democrats plot a path forward on infrastructure — with or without Republicans

The White House floated taking an extra seven to 10 days to see whether a bipartisan deal is possible.
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WASHINGTON — Democrats set a timeline Tuesday to move ahead with a sweeping infrastructure and jobs bill that wouldn't require Republican support, making it clear that they believe a bipartisan deal wouldn't sufficiently deliver on President Joe Biden's top legislative priorities.

The process would allow Democrats to avoid the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, but it wouldn't guarantee that they will be able to pass the $4 trillion proposal Biden asked for. Still, it could pave the way for them to send a major piece of legislation to his desk.

And in seeking a bill that would require the support of all 50 Democratic-aligned senators, the party faces a major test of whether it can keep its whole caucus in line.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters that he will convene a meeting Wednesday of Budget Committee members to discuss crafting a budget resolution — the only way Democrats can bypass a Republican filibuster — to vote on in July.

He said bipartisan talks would continue to try to find a deal with Republicans.

"One track is bipartisan, and the second track pulls in other elements of Biden's American Job Plan and American Families Plan, which will be considered even if it doesn't have bipartisan support," Schumer said.

The two most conservative Democrats haven't said how they would vote, but they notably kept the door open to Schumer's two-track approach.

"I'd like to make sure that both of them get a fair look," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

A spokesperson for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said she is still talking with colleagues and the administration about the way forward but didn't rule out a partisan bill: "Kyrsten will give careful consideration to any idea that can strength Arizona's economy."

Manchin and Sinema are part of the bipartisan group of 10 senators trying to negotiate a $579 billion agreement to fund physical infrastructure projects.

Some progressives, including Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., also drew hard lines this week, saying they wouldn't vote for a bill that excludes priorities like mitigating climate change.

"There's a strong sentiment within the caucus that the bipartisan bill and a reconciliation bill has to be chained together with a lock that cannot be broken," Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., told reporters. "Got to make sure the caucus is all together on both."

'The clock is ticking'

White House counselor Steve Ricchetti told lawmakers at a House Democratic caucus meeting Tuesday that the next seven to 10 days could lead to a decision about how to proceed, multiple people at the meeting said.

"Obviously, the clock is ticking. Nobody wants to do the stall-until-we're-doomed approach," said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. "What I hear is that they are: a) sincere about wanting a bipartisan deal, b) they don't want to talk forever."

A White House official emphasized that Ricchetti wasn't imposing a firm deadline.

"He said that we are certainly going to know where things stand on infrastructure talks generally in the next week to 10 days and that we can then take stock overall," the official said.

Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, was skeptical about the $579 billion framework.

"I think we need more than that," he said, saying now is "a unique opportunity to go bigger."

He said Republican cooperation would be good but wasn't necessary.

"Trying to exhaust every opportunity for finding common ground makes a good deal of sense, but at some point in legislative life, reality settles in. And if you can't do it, then you want to be prepared to go to the process of reconciliation," Neal said Tuesday.

Top Senate Republicans split over whether Democrats' pursuit of a party-line bill would damage prospects of a bipartisan deal.

"It's a bad idea," said Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, a member of the Republican leadership. "That sends a signal that he really doesn't want to do a bipartisan bill. I think it just makes us upset."

One of the biggest sticking points is how to pay for the $579 billion infrastructure plan. Republicans are dead set against raising taxes, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., can deliver significant votes or sink legislation with this opposition.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said that if Republicans agree to a bipartisan deal, they could make it tougher for Democrats to secure the votes for a separate party-line bill.

"You can make the argument that if there's a bipartisan deal on the infrastructure pieces — and all that's left is voting for the tax increases and all the social spending — that it'd be hard to get some of those moderate Democrats to be for that," he said. "So you can argue both ways. There's some argument that they're going to do all this other stuff anyway. Why give them a win on this?"

A party-line bill would be another major test of Schumer's ability to keep his ideologically diverse caucus unified in the face of what is likely to be aggressive Republican opposition. He vowed after a meeting Tuesday that Democrats would stick together behind Biden's economic plans.

"There was a total agreement that we must have unity and get it done," he said.