Senate Republicans cautiously optimistic about infrastructure talks with Biden White House

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A delegation of Republican senators returned Thursday from meeting with President Biden at the White House cautiously optimistic about the ongoing discussion over infrastructure.

“We did talk about some specifics and the president has asked us to come back and rework an offer so that he could then react to that,” said GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.”The attitude the president had in the oval office with us, was very supportive, very much desirous of striking a deal, and I think we all were reflective of that as well.”

Ms. Capito, the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has been tasked by Republicans to lead the negotiations with Mr. Biden.

At the moment, both sides are strongly divided over what constitutes infrastructure and how to pay for any new spending. The White House $2.25 trillion over the next decade. Only $612 billion of that sum goes to roads and bridges, with the rest earmarked for social welfare and climate change initiatives.

“What we’ve got here is what can best be described as a bait and switch,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently when discussing Mr. Biden‘s proposal.

Republicans, in particular, argue that any infrastructure package should focus exclusively on fixing the nation’s roads, bridges and other transportation systems.

As such, Ms. Capito has authored a “fiscally responsible” infrastructure proposal, calling for spending only $568 billion.

Both sides expect that if a bipartisan compromise is possible, the total figure will be significantly higher. Earlier this week, Mr. McConnell signaled “the proper price tag” could be upwards of $800 billion during an interview in his native state of Kentucky.

The openness to compromise on overall infrastructure spending, in part, is fueling the spirit among lawmakers that a deal can be reached.

“I think we’ll be able to go back by the first of the week with another offer. And I believe [Mr. Biden] make a counteroffer to that,” said GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who attended the meeting. “And we all know, we need to move pretty quickly here, if we’re going to get something done.”

Both sides, though, are remaining tight-lipped about the areas of compromise.

“We’re going to be looking at everything and seeing how we can find ways to make progress,” said Sen. Michael Crapo of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

Despite the rhetoric, both sides have drawn “red lines” on how to pay for any new infrastructure spending.

On Wednesday, Mr. McConnell said repealing the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was not an option for Republicans.

Mr. Biden, meanwhile, is set on raising both corporate and income taxes to generate revenue for the endeavor. The White House has also ruled out increasing “user fees,” such as the gasoline tax, that have been used to fund infrastructure projects for decades.

“If everything is paid for by a user fee, well, then, you know, the burden falls on working-class folks who are having trouble,” the president said. “This has to be a burden shared across the spectrum.”

The rift has left some wondering whether a deal will be possible at all. Many believe that Mr. Biden is open to splitting up his infrastructure package into two separate bills.

The first would include all of the spending likely to generate bipartisan support. The second would be the more controversial segments on the White House‘s proposal that could not generate the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster in the 50-50 Senate.

“Let’s see if we can get that agreement to kick-start this and then fight over what’s left,” the president said Wednesday during an interview with MSNBC. “We’ll see if I can get it done without Republicans if need be.”

If Mr. Biden chose to follow that strategy, the more controversial parts of his package would need to pass via budget reconciliation. The process allows legislation dealing with spending and debt to pass via a simple majority of the Senate, usually 51 votes.

Success using budget reconciliation is uncertain since Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the most conservative Democrat in the chamber, would be key. The White House is already seen as courting Mr. Manchin should a bipartisan compromise falter and reconciliation is the only alternative.

Last month, Mr. Biden appointed the senator’s wife to a $160,000-per-year job with the Appalachian Regional Commission. Similarly, the White House dispatched first lady Jill Biden and actress Jennifer Garner to West Virginia on Thursday to promote the COVID-19 vaccine.

Mrs. Biden and Ms. Garner traveled to the state on the president’s private plane with Mr. Manchin and his wife in tow.

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