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Senators, White House in talks to finish infrastructure bill

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

President Joe Biden speaks during an event in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, July 26, 2021, to highlight the bipartisan roots of the Americans with Disabilities Act and marking the law's 31st anniversary. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – Senators and the White House were locked in intense negotiations Tuesday to salvage a bipartisan infrastructure deal, with pressure mounting on all sides to wrap up talks and show progress on President Joe Biden’s top priority.

Despite weeks of closed-door discussions, senators from the bipartisan group blew past a Monday deadline set for agreement on the nearly $1 trillion package. They hit serious roadblocks over how much would be spent on public transit and water infrastructure and whether the new spending on roads, bridges, broadband and other projects would be required to meet federal wage requirements for workers. They're also at odds over drawing on COVID-19 funds to help pay for it.

Republican negotiator Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who took the lead in key talks with a top White House aide, insisted the bipartisan group was “making progress.” Biden struck a similarly upbeat tone, telling reporters at the White House he remained optimistic about reaching a compromise.

But as talks drag on, anxious Democrats, who have slim control of the House and Senate, face a timeline to act on what would be some of the most substantial legislation in years. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told senators Tuesday they should be prepared to work through the weekend to finish the bill.

Biden met Tuesday morning with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, one of the Democrats' leaders in the infrastructure bargaining, at the White House to discuss the talks, said two people who acknowledged the session only on condition of anonymity.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said after the president's meeting with Sinema, “They are very much aligned on the path forward.”

Psaki said the administration is “not setting new deadlines” for a deal, but sees “good signs.”

The White House wants a bipartisan agreement for this first phase, before Democrats go it alone to tackle broader priorities in a bigger $3.5 trillion budget plan that's on deck. A recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC found 8 in 10 Americans favor some increased infrastructure spending, and the current package could be a political win for all sides as lawmakers try to show voters that Washington can work. Securing the bipartisan bill is also important for some centrist Democrats before engaging in the broader undertaking.

The House will also have a chance to weigh in on the legislation if it clears the Senate.

At a private meeting of House Democrats on Tuesday, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee called the infrastructure measure that senators of both parties are struggling to complete “crap,” according to two Democrats who attended the session. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said the Senate effort was being led by “three Republicans” — Portman, Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sinema, D-Ariz., a centrist distrusted by some Democrats.

DeFazio’s remarks illustrated the tensions between Democrats in the two chambers over the budget talks. The Democrats spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the closed-door session.

The bipartisan package includes about $600 billion in new spending on public works projects, with broad support from Republicans and Democrats for many of the proposed ideas.

Yet there was little to show Monday after a grinding weekend of talks, putting the deal at risk of stalling out.

The Democrats and the White House had sent what they called a “global” offer to Republicans on remaining issues late Sunday, according to a Democratic aide close to the talks and granted anonymity to discuss them.

But Republicans rebuffed the ideas, saying the new proposal attempted to reopen issues that had already been resolved, according to a GOP aide also granted anonymity to discuss the talks.

Collins said it’s time for Biden to become more involved. “I think it’s imperative that the president indicates strongly that he wants a bipartisan package,” she said.

While much of the disagreement has been over the size of spending on each category, labor issues have also emerged as a flashpoint.

Democrats are insisting on a prevailing-wage requirement, not just for existing public works programs but also for building new roads, bridges, broadband and other infrastructure, according to another Republican granted anonymity to discuss the private talks.

At the same time, transit funding has been a stubborn source of disagreement.

Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, the top Republican on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which oversees public transit, raised questions about the size of the transit funding increase. He cited, in part, previous COVID-19 federal relief money that had already been allocated to public transit.

Democrats and public transit advocates don't want spending to go any lower than what's typically been a federal formula of about 80% for highways and 20% for transit. They see expanded public transit systems as key to easing traffic congestion and combating climate change.

The senators also appeared to still be debating money for public water works and removal of lead pipes after Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, raised questions about the amount.

Also unresolved is how to pay for the bipartisan package after Democrats rejected a plan to bring in funds by hiking the gas tax drivers pay at the pump and Republicans dashed a plan to boost the IRS to go after tax scofflaws.

Funding could come from repurposing COVID relief aid, reversing a Trump-era pharmaceutical rebate and other streams. It's possible the final deal could run into political trouble if it doesn't pass muster as fully paid for when the Congressional Budget Office assesses the details.

The final package would need the support of 60 senators in the evenly split 50-50 Senate to advance past a filibuster — meaning at least 10 Republicans along with every Democratic member. A test vote last week failed along party lines as Republicans sought more time to negotiate.

Meanwhile, Democrats are readying the broader $3.5 trillion package, which would go beyond public works to include child care centers, family tax breaks and other priorities. It is being considered under budget rules that allow passage with 51 senators in the split Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to break a tie. That package would be paid for by increasing the corporate tax rate and the tax rate on Americans earning more than $400,000 a year.

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Associated Press writers Hope Yen, Alan Fram and Josh Boak contributed to this report.