Republicans offer infrastructure counter well short of Biden vision

Senate Republicans unveiled a $928 billion infrastructure counteroffer Thursday in an effort to reach a bipartisan agreement with the White House, even as progressives are losing patience.

The proposal comes as bipartisan talks are set to go past the Biden administration’s unofficial deadline of Memorial Day. But the latest GOP offer only includes $257 billion in new spending, a far cry from the White House’s last proffered number of $1.7 trillion.

“We believe this counteroffer delivers on what President Biden told us in the Oval office that day and that is to try to reach somewhere near $1 trillion over an eight year period that would include our baseline spending,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) the top GOP negotiator. “We have achieved that goal with this counteroffer.”

The new GOP proposal, which was detailed in a memo sent to the White House, allocates $506 billion for roads and bridges, $98 billion for public transit systems, $46 billion for passenger and freight trail, $21 billion for safety, $22 billion for ports and waterways, $56 billion for airports, among other features.

While the counteroffer will likely prolong discussions with the White House, the Biden administration and Senate Republicans still remain far apart on several issues, including the total cost, the definition of infrastructure, and how to pay for it.

Biden told reporters on his way to Ohio that he had spoken to Capito but not yet had a chance to look at the full GOP counter-offer, adding that he hoped to meet again with Republican negotiators next week.

The White House “will work actively with members of the House and Senate next week, so that there is a clear direction on how to advance much-needed jobs legislation” when the Senate returns from its Memorial Day break, press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.

Progressive Senate Democrats are already scoffing at the GOP counteroffer. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) described it as a “non-starter” on CNN. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) called the GOP proposal as “not particularly genuine,” while Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) added that Democrats are losing patience.

“I fully understand the president’s instinctive desire for a bipartisan solution and that would be the best of all worlds but it takes two to tango,” Blumenthal said. “And so far they really refuse to come to the dance floor.”

Some moderate Democrats, however, remain encouraged that Republicans are still at the table. And Republicans argue that the offer with the White House isn’t as far apart as Democrats are suggesting when it comes to the definition of physical infrastructure.

“I think the gaps are much less,” Capito said. “The important thing here is that the president’s desire and our desire to do something together that’s traditionally been handled by the Congress and the White House for years together.”

How to pay for the bill remains a substantial obstacle to getting a bipartisan agreement. Psaki said that Republicans had “substantially increased the funding level” and noted the group had “several constructive additions,” but reiterated concerns Thursday that “how to pay for the plan remains unclear.”

The White House has suggested paying for the package by increasing the corporate tax rate, a non-starter for the GOP. Republicans have instead suggested user fees and using unused money allocated for coronavirus relief, arguing that there is a precedent for doing so. Democrats have rejected those suggestions.

“There’s a lot of Covid-specific money,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “Better to use that money for something that we all want to do than have it sit around there for somebody else’s pet project at some time in the future.”

But Casey described using unspent covid money as “insulting” given that Republicans “refuse to consider even a single point of increase on the corporate tax rate.”

The new GOP counteroffer comes after White House officials presented Senate Republicans with a new proposal last week. But Republicans said after the virtual meeting that both sides were only getting further apart. Privately, members of both parties are anticipating that Democrats will end up using the so-called reconciliation process that would allow them to pass the package along party lines.

In the GOP memo to the White House, the Republican senators said their proposal met the parameters Biden laid out in a recent Oval Office meeting with him and warned that “proceeding with reconciliation would undermine the good work we have done, and can continue to do, in a bipartisan manner.”

Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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