Eyeing calendar, Biden to end GOP infrastructure talks soon

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President Joe Biden speaks at Sportrock Climbing Centers, Friday, May 28, 2021, in Alexandria, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden wants to wrap up infrastructure negotiations soon with Senate Republicans and is looking ahead to June action in the House after finding their idea of tapping leftover COVID-19 relief funds to pay for the investment unworkable, a White House adviser said Friday.

Even as Biden plans to meet with lead GOP negotiator Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia next week and is open to hearing from other Republican senators working on different proposals, he is eying the short timeline remaining to strike a deal. The president is taking note of the June 9 hearing on a House transportation bill that is widely seen as a building block for a big package.

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Details of the president's thinking on the path ahead are solidifying after extensive deliberations with his staff at the White House. What has emerged are more detailed outlines of his assessment and major objections to the approach put forward in a Republican counteroffer.

The president has concerns over the substance of the GOP infrastructure proposal and how to pay for it. The thinking was shared by the White House adviser on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private deliberations.

Biden on Thursday warned naysayers in Congress not to “get in the way” of his big infrastructure plans.

After touring a manufacturing technology center at a community college in Cleveland, Biden held up a card with the names of Republicans lawmakers who had rejected his coronavirus aid bill in Washington but later promoted its assistance when they were back home in front of voters. He warned them not to play similar games as he pushes this next legislative priority in Congress.

“I’m not going to embarrass anyone, but I have here a list," he said. “If you’re going to take credit for what we’ve done,” he continued, “don’t get in the way of what we need to do.”

The political arguments over Biden's ambitious proposals are quickly distilling into a debate over the size and scope of what all sides agree are sorely needed upgrades to the nation's aging and outmoded infrastructure.

As the president reaches for a soaring legislative achievement with his $1.7 trillion American Jobs Plan and a separate $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, he is assessing whether he can cut a bipartisan deal with Republicans or will have to push through his proposals with only Democratic votes.

Republican senators outlined a $928 billion infrastructure proposal Thursday as a counteroffer to Biden, drawing a fresh red line against his plans raise the corporate tax, from 21% to 28%, to pay for new spending. Instead, the Republicans want to shift unspent COVID-19 relief dollars to help cover the costs, a nonstarter for many Democrats.

The Republican senators said their offer, raised from an initial $568 billion, delivers on “core infrastructure investments” that Biden has focused on as areas of potential agreement. “It’s a serious effort to try to reach a bipartisan agreement,” said Capito.

With about $250 billion in new spending, the GOP plan remains far from the president’s approach. Biden reduced his $2.3 trillion opening bid to $1.7 trillion in earlier negotiations.

As Biden left for Ohio, he said he called Capito to thank her for the proposal, but told her, “We have to finish this really soon.”

But on Friday, it was becoming more certain that Biden was objecting to the GOP approach, and casting about for alternatives as he looks ahead to the House action.

While the president welcomed the increased spending level by the Republicans as encouraging, he is concerned that it does not do enough to meet the scope of his proposal, and omits key features such as investment in veterans hospitals and a green-energy economy, the adviser said.

The president found the idea of tapping unused COVID-19 relief funds unworkable — a line that can't be crossed — because it raises hard questions over whether aid provisions to families or businesses weathering the pandemic would have to be cut off or scaled back. Some 90% of the aid in the American Rescue Plan is already accounted for or already spent.

Biden instead has proposed raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% to pay for the infrastructure investment, a proposal Republicans reject as their own red line.

As Biden toured Cuyahoga Community College, he said he was “not looking to punish anyone” with his tax plans. But said it was time for America’s wealthy and corporations to help invest in the nation’s future. “Just start paying your fair share just a little bit,” he said.

But with slim majorities in the House and Senate, the Democratic president faces other hurdles if he decides to abandon talks with Republicans and tries to unite fractious Democrats.

Core differences remain between the White House and GOP negotiators over the definition of infrastructure: Republicans stick to traditional investments in roads, bridges, ports and water drinking systems, while Biden takes a more expansive view.

Under Biden's initial proposal, there is more than $300 billion for substantial upgrades to public schools, Veterans Administration hospitals and affordable housing, along with $25 billion for new and renovated child care centers.

Biden’s proposal would spend heavily on efforts to confront climate change, with $174 billion to spur the electric vehicle market, in part by developing charging stations, and $50 billion so communities can better deal with floods, hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters.

One area of agreement is on boosting broadband, but the sides are apart on details. Republicans raised their initial offer to $65 billion in an earlier exchange; Biden is seeking $100 billion.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said the Republicans' overall proposal reflects what “what people at home in Wyoming think of as infrastructure, roads with potholes.”

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said there is $700 billion in unspent COVID-19 aid from the American Rescue Plan, and some of that money could fill the gap between the amount of revenue normally collected from transportation taxes and fees and the new spending GOP senators are proposing.

But he said the Republican negotiators have made it “very, very clear on every single time we’ve had a discussion is that we’re not raising taxes.”

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