Democrats Vow to Push Their Own Infrastructure Plan as Talks Drag On

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As progressives balked at an emerging bipartisan deal, top Democrats said they hoped to move forward in July with a budget maneuver that would allow them to push through their own plan.

Senator Edward J. Markey, left, and Senator Jeff Merkley said they would oppose any deal that omitted anti-climate-change measures that matched the sweep of those championed by President Biden during his campaign.
Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Emily CochraneJonathan Weisman

June 15, 2021

WASHINGTON — Top Senate Democrats vowed on Tuesday to steer around Republican opposition and press forward with their own ambitious package of tax increases and public works programs, continuing a parallel track even as the White House and a bipartisan group of senators reached for a compromise infrastructure plan aimed at drawing support from both parties.

Members of the bipartisan group, five Republicans and five Democrats, briefed their colleagues on their blueprint for an emerging proposal that is expected to total about $1.2 trillion over eight years, roughly half of that new spending, for roads, bridges and other physical infrastructure. But the plan was already drawing fire from liberal Democrats who dismissed it as inadequate and misguided, with some openly urging their leaders to abandon the talks in favor of legislation that reflected more of President Biden’s priorities.

Democratic leaders do not appear ready to do so, at least not yet. Steve Ricchetti, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden, privately told House Democrats on Tuesday that the White House would give the bipartisan talks at least another week before assessing the likelihood of a deal.

But Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, made it clear that Democrats would not wait to move forward on a parallel track with a more expansive package that includes tax increases on corporations and wealthy individuals, as well as what they are calling “human infrastructure” programs such as those to combat climate change and support caregiving. With Republicans uniformly opposed, doing so would require using the fast-track budget process known as reconciliation, which shields fiscal measures from filibusters, allowing them to pass with a simple majority vote.

“There are members with very justified views, whatever you can do bipartisan, we should try,” Mr. Schumer said, adding that he hoped to advance both a bipartisan infrastructure proposal and the budget blueprint in July. “But alongside that is the view that that won’t be enough.”

Using reconciliation would require nearly every House Democrat and all 50 senators who caucus with Democrats to remain united, and some liberal lawmakers worry that any bipartisan deal could sap the support needed to do so.

Mr. Schumer is set to convene the 11 Democrats on the Budget Committee on Wednesday in part to discuss the work of starting the reconciliation process, according to a senior Democratic aide who disclosed the plans on the condition of anonymity. Committee staff members have already begun work on the legislation needed to trigger the process.

“There are large numbers of people in our caucus — and I sympathize with this — who will not vote for a bipartisan bill unless they’re quite certain what’s going to be in reconciliation,” Mr. Schumer said.

The mounting bill of particulars against a hoped-for bipartisan deal is lengthy, particularly among Democrats eager to keep promises to the voters who delivered them control of Congress and the White House and enact policy provisions that have long been rejected by Republicans.

“If they choose the obstruction pathway, then we’re prepared to do what is necessary” to pass Mr. Biden’s plan, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a member of House Democratic leadership, said of Republicans.

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“There are members with very justified views, whatever you can do bipartisan, we should try,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader.
Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts said they would oppose any deal that omitted anti-climate-change measures that matched the sweep of those championed by Mr. Biden during his campaign. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who leads the Budget Committee, said any deal had to be paid for with a package of “progressive taxation,” while the House Progressive Caucus has circulated a sweeping list of priorities and urged leaders to abandon the bipartisan talks.

“These guys have been talking for quite a while now, and we have an enormous amount of work,” Mr. Sanders said. “We have to pass a major, major piece of legislation, which goes well beyond physical infrastructure, which goes into the needs of working families in this country, which goes into the issue of raising the money in a fair and progressive way.”

Undaunted by their skeptics, the Republicans and Democrats working to forge a deal used party lunches — for Democrats, the first such gathering in the Capitol since the pandemic began some 18 months ago — to give their colleagues what Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, described as a “30,000-foot” outline of their framework.

“This is not perfect legislation,” Mr. Tester said. “This is legislation if you want to vote for it, you can find reasons to vote for it.” While he remains engaged in the discussions, Mr. Tester said that he supported moving forward with the reconciliation process while the bipartisan talks continue.

Several Republicans, including members of leadership, said they were open to a bipartisan deal and put the onus on Democrats to accept the kind of concessions that would be necessary to seal one — the very outcome that many progressives dread.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, told reporters to “put me down as listening and hopeful.”

Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, said that “there’s a path” for an infrastructure compromise “where you can get a significant number of Republicans — the question is, can you get enough Democrats to get to 60?”

“I just don’t know at this point, based on what we’ve seen, whether that can happen,” Mr. Thune added.

How to finance the package remains one of the most fraught hurdles to an agreement. The 10 lawmakers involved in the bipartisan talks have discussed indexing the gas tax to inflation, repurposing unspent aid from the coronavirus relief package and establishing a fee for drivers for electric vehicles. But the White House has raised concerns with some of those proposals, and other Democrats have pushed for a more fundamental overhaul of the tax code.

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Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the Finance Committee chairman, is developing a suite of proposals to tax the superrich, to hit multinational corporations that move profits and jobs offshore, and to shift tax benefits from oil and gas industries to clean energy and conservation. That effort, he argued, has gained momentum after reporting by ProPublica that underscored how billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are escaping a significant amount of federal taxation.

“The real purpose of this is just to prevent any efforts to deal with those issues of human infrastructure, child care, and the mega-corporations and the most affluent paying their fair share,” Mr. Wyden said of the emerging compromise.

Democrats will also have to reconcile within their own caucus the details of Mr. Biden’s plan, addressing internal divisions over how to structure and pay for the legislation. But some lawmakers said it would be easier to agree on a final product without trying to appease the narrow scope favored by Republicans.

“The ultimate infrastructure bill may not have every single thing that every single member wants and nothing more — I understand that, and so do the other 49 members of my caucus,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts. “But I cannot support a bill that leaves whole areas behind, like child care and green energy.”

Democrats also have little room to maneuver, with razor-thin margins in both chambers. On Tuesday, Mr. Schumer postponed votes to advance and confirm the director of the Office of Personnel Management, citing the absence of two Democrats dealing with family illness.

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