At Monday night’s meeting, there was no apparent breakthrough, even as the urgency increased. sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a moderate in the group, said the group is “very close” and could have a public agreement soon. Many in his party are getting cranky as they approach the July 4 recess.
Details on how to pay for the proposal remain elusive, though the group has identified funding mechanisms for legislation that could total more than $1 trillion when new expenses are included in the current transportation baseline. The White House has rejected proposals to gradually increase the gas tax in addition to inflation and to charge fees for electric vehicles. And chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Sunday questioned the great faith in public-private partnerships.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has been involved with the bipartisan group, said he has “heard exaggerated claims” about how much money the group can actually raise.
“The spending part is easy for Democrats to swallow,” Durbin said. “The pay hefty is dramatically different. The Biden approach used corporate and income taxes for wealthy individuals. The Republicans have a much longer list that I’ve seen once. That raises a lot of questions.”
Details have remained scarce, save for an early breakdown of last week’s spending, and there has been no public disclosure of the still-evolving talks as things keep moving. President Joe Biden’s foreign trip last week was an added complication. The group could release more details this week.
Biden is expected to meet with negotiators this week, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
sen. Shelley Moore Capito (RW.Va.), who separately sought a deal with Biden, said on Monday that Biden’s increased involvement will be helpful “because he really wants the two-pronged deal.” But she also said the White House’s backlash to the bipartisan group’s proposed rewards is “the same pushback I got.”
“Pay hefty will be the big problem. Like it was with me,” Capito said, pointing out that the Senate is about to take a two-week hiatus. “We’re only here this week.”
The spending breakdown was distributed to the negotiating senators to help set up congressional committees that would begin drafting legislation, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. The source said Monday’s document is an “honest representation” of the state of affairs, but the numbers could change.
“We’re not trying to recreate the wheel here, we’re trying to respect the committee process as much as possible,” said Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a leading member of the group. “More than 60 percent of this bill has already been written.”
The group proposes to spend $360 billion on roads, bridges and major projects; $48.5 billion for public transportation; $66 billion for rail; $55 billion for water infrastructure; $65 billion for broadband and $73 billion for energy infrastructure. In addition, the group proposes to spend $47.2 billion on climate resilience, $25 billion on airports, $10 billion on electric buses and $16 billion on ports.
It also outlines the filing of a major bill from the Energy Commission that Chairman Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) is working on to tackle abandoned mines, weathering, and energy and climate-related utilities.
Many of the top-line figures contain a more detailed breakdown of the proposed expenditures. For example, of the $360 billion for roads and bridges, $258 billion is for highways, $40 billion is for bridges, and the rest is for transportation alternatives, federal lands, and tribal infrastructure. Of that money, $110 billion represents new spending.
The group proposed spending about $830 billion, according to a statement obtained by Mediafrolic, which includes some current spending on highway programs. In total, new spending will still total $579 billion, and total spending is expected to be around $1 trillion or more, depending on the timeline of how the money will be distributed.
But not all spending figures are final, and some of those details may require more work from the group’s 21 supporters. Last week, the group gained the support of 10 Democrats and 11 Republicans, though many Democrats are hesitant to sign up without more certainty about how to fulfill the party’s other priorities.
Senators have yet to fine-tune how to foot the bill. Republicans say that any agreement must be paid in full and must not levy taxes. And negotiators now need to replace the gas tax and electric vehicle fees they discussed earlier. sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said gas taxes and electric vehicle fees represented less than 10 percent of the money needed for the bill. He said the group would either “find other places” [for the money] or they will reject it and we will withdraw.”
To complicate matters, liberals are also pushing for commitments from their party leaders to approve a more voluminous spending package that addresses Democratic priorities such as climate change and paid time off in addition to a bipartisan deal.
Manchin, who is part of the task force, has not yet indicated whether he would commit to a package that has only Democratic support and may include trillions of spending on Democrats’ domestic priorities. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has Democrats on a “two-track system,” playing out the bipartisan negotiations while also preparing a possible party-line fallback plan under budget alignment.
Some on the left are already ready to stop talking down the aisle.
“I just think it doesn’t look too good, so we need to move towards reconciliation,” said D-Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono.
A few officials on Biden’s legislative affairs team echoed the two-track approach in a conversation with senior House Democratic aides on Monday, according to several people who listened.
Shuwanza Goff and Louisa Terrell said they are looking at both a bipartisan bill and a reconciliation option while assuring the Democratic staff that the White House is determined to go big.
“We’re not going to waste our time,” Terrell said during the phone call.
Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.