Democrats are divided over a $568 billion infrastructure counteroffer unveiled Thursday by Senate Republicans, with some calling it a good starting point for bipartisan talks and others dismissing it as “a slap in the face” and “totally inadequate.”
The rift boils down to a difference over strategy revolving around the importance of winning a bipartisan deal and the risk it could leave certain Democratic priorities on the cutting-room floor.
Centrists led by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, see advantages in passing a scaled-down infrastructure package with Republican votes and then passing the rest of President Biden’s infrastructure package with only Democratic votes though budget reconciliation rules that sidestep the filibuster later this year.
Democrats who want to get a bipartisan accomplishment in the books now argue that it would fulfill Biden’s 2020 campaign pledge to work with Republicans and restore some civility to Washington.
“I think this is a starting point for discussions,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), one of 10 Democratic centrists who met Thursday with 10 moderate Republicans to discuss common ground on a number of issues.
The White House also welcomed the proposal. “It’s the beginning of a discussion,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
But other Democrats want to “go big” right now and aren’t interested in deferring action on two-thirds of Biden’s infrastructure agenda to later in the year, when the political dynamic may be different.
They worry that it could be harder to keep the entire 50-member Senate Democratic Caucus unified on a later spending package if the infrastructure proposals with the most bipartisan support, such as funding for roads, rail, bridges, airports and broadband internet are pulled from Biden’s broader agenda and passed separately.
There’s also nagging concern that if one Democratic senator from a state with a Republican governor falls ill or leaves the chamber for an unexpected reason, control of the 50-50 Senate would flip back to Republicans.
“There is a concern about time,” said one Democratic senator familiar with internal caucus discussions, who commented on the two competing schools of thought among fellow Democrats.
The senator noted that it will take a couple months to negotiate, craft and pass a $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion infrastructure bill with only Democratic votes under budget reconciliation.
The longer bipartisan negotiations drag on, the later in the year the reconciliation package will be passed.
And the more time it takes to pass Biden’s $2.3 trillion initial infrastructure proposal, the less time there will be later this year or next year to take up the president’s “human infrastructure” proposal, the American Family Plan.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Thursday blasted the GOP proposal as “totally inadequate.”
“I think that number is totally inadequate given the infrastructural needs facing this country and the funding for their proposal is very regressive, coming down on working families,” he said.
The Republican plan would set user fees for electric vehicles and for other types of infrastructure to offset its cost. It would also repurpose unspent funding allocated to state and local governments in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed last month.
The Republican proposal includes money from the Highway Trust Fund to pay for it, which means it represents less than $568 billion in new money going toward infrastructure, something that more progressive Democrats immediately flagged as a problem Thursday.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) called the GOP proposal “a slap in the face” because it would not provide substantial new funding for home and community health care services, a component of Biden’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan.
“Senate Republicans need to go back to the drawing board and present a real offer. I won’t be a part of any scheme that sells out our seniors and those with disabilities who have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic,” Casey said in a statement.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who on Wednesday called the GOP plan “an insult” when it was estimated to cost between $600 billion and $800 billion, said the detailed $568 billion Republican framework unveiled Thursday falls far short of what is needed.
“It seems small, doesn’t it?” he said Thursday, making a joke out of the size of the GOP counteroffer. “I was never that good at math, but $2.3 trillion versus $568 billion.”
Blumenthal said he supported all of the spending priorities in the GOP plan but added their funding levels “need to be a lot bigger.”
He argued investments in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure are past due.
“We need to do it now,” he said. “If the roof is leaking, you don’t repair a quarter of it and say that’s fine.”
“Delay just raises the cost,” he said. “It needs to be a really big proposal.”
Coons earlier this month said it would be a win for Democrats if they passed an $800 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill before relying on the reconciliation process to pass other elements of Biden’s agenda with only Democratic votes.
“The path forward that I’m seeing and that I’m working for is one where we take up and pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill, one that focuses on areas where the parties really agree,” he said last week.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key swing vote, said he also sees the GOP proposal as a “starting point.”
“It’s a starting point. I appreciate and respect what she did,” he said of the framework presented earlier in the day by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Manchin added that he hasn’t set a minimum price target for the infrastructure package but that he expects Republicans will increase their offer as negotiations proceed.
But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) dismissed the Republican plan as “too small” and “not serious.”
“Republicans’ package is far too small to fund the investments the American people need and strongly support. It’s just a quarter of what President Biden has proposed, and it’s not a serious effort to do anything at all about the climate crisis,” he said in a statement.