WASHINGTON – Patience running thin, Democratic leaders are laying the groundwork for a go-it-alone approach on President Joe Biden's big jobs and families infrastructure plans even as the White House continues negotiating with Republicans on a much more scaled-back $1 trillion proposal.
A top White House adviser assured House Democrats during a closed-door session Tuesday that there would be a fresh assessment by next week on where talks stand with the Republicans. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced he is moving ahead, huddling privately Wednesday with the Senate Budget Committee to prepare for July votes on a majority-rules approach as wary Democrats prepare to lift Biden's $1.7 billion American Jobs Plan and $1.8 billion American Families Plan to passage.
Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are trying to calm worries from anxious rank-and-file Democrats that Biden is leaving too much on the table in talks with Republicans. Restless lawmakers want assurances that if they concede to a scaled-back bill with Republicans, it won't be the last word and the president's push for investments in climate change strategies, child care centers and other Democratic priorities will proceed — with or without GOP votes.
“We’ll see where we’re going to go after a week or 10 days (of) more dialogue and negotiation,” White House counselor Steve Ricchetti said Tuesday, according to a partial transcript of the private caucus meeting obtained by The Associated Press.
The updated timeline comes as Biden's top legislative priority is teetering in Congress while he is overseas. The president and the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate have been engaged in a two-track strategy — reaching for a bipartisan deal with Republicans but also setting the stage for a potential majority-rules strategy in case talks fail.
Over the past week, a bipartisan group of 10 senators has narrowed in on a nearly $1 trillion deal of mainly road, highway and other traditional infrastructure projects, but without the family-related investments in child care centers and other facilities that Ricchetti insisted Tuesday remains a top priority for the administration. Republicans reject those investments as costly and unnecessary.
“Just ask a working mom if child care is part of her family's infrastructure,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. "Ask a family with an aging parent who needs help to live at home safely if home care is infrastructure. We understand that it is."
On Tuesday, the members of the bipartisan group of senators presented the emerging proposal to their colleagues at closed-door Senate lunches and were met with mixed reviews.
The effort by the bipartisan group, five Democrats and five Republicans, has come far in meeting Biden’s initial ideas, but the senators and the president remain wide apart over how to pay for the plan.
Republicans have rejected the president's proposal to raise the corporate tax rate, from 21% to 28%, to pay for infrastructure investments, or to increase taxes on wealthy Americans..
Instead, under the bipartisan proposal, the projects would be funded by increasing the gas tax paid at the pump by linking it to inflation, tapping unspent COVID-19 relief funds and trying to recoup unpaid income taxes.
“People were optimistic we could actually get something done,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., emerging from the lunch meeting.
But the prospect of raising the gas tax is highly unpopular with some Democratic lawmakers, echoing Biden's refusal to raise taxes on people earning less than $400,000 a year.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chair of the Senate Finance Committee, described it as “another hit on working people.”
“To me, their idea that they’re going to raise taxes on working people while letting multinational companies and the most wealthy Americans off the hook is a nonstarter,” Wyden said. “I mean, where is the fairness in that?”
Biden is also facing skepticism from Democrats who want to see robust investments in strategies to fight climate change — for electric vehicle charging stations, money to bolster communities' response to harsh weather conditions and funds for public transit that many rural state Republicans oppose and that have been dramatically reduced in the bipartisan plan.
“There has to be a guarantee, an absolute unbreakable guarantee, that climate is going to be at the center of any infrastructure deal that we cut," said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
“We cannot let our planet down,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. “This has to be part of the deal.″
The White House plans to give the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations another week to 10 days before assessing the next steps, but insisted there was no deadline to this latest round of talks.
Deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said that Ricchetti conveyed to the lawmakers that "we are certainly going to know where things stand on infrastructure talks generally in the next week to 10 days, and that we can then take stock overall. But he did not set a deadline or cutoff.”
Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., the House Budget Committee chair, said the plan is, if bipartisan talks falter, to move “full steam ahead” on considering a package as soon as July under special reconciliation rules that would enable majority passage without the need for Republican votes.
With the Senate narrowly split, 50-50, Democrats are skeptical at least 10 Republicans will join to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance most legislation over a filibuster. Democrats are pushing to use budget reconciliation rules that would allow passage on a simple majority vote of 51 votes in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to serve as a tiebreaker.
The package being prepared by the House Budget Committee would include both the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. These are Biden’s ambitious proposals to build not just roads and highways, but also the so-called human infrastructure of child care, veterans care and education facilities.
Schumer will convene a meeting Wednesday of the Democratic senators on the Budget Committee, urging them to rally around a “Unity Budget,” according to a senior Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private session.
Schumer will instruct the 11 Democratic senators on the panel to ensure that key climate and care-giving components are included in the framework — including a plan to reduce U.S. electricity emissions by 80% by 2030.
“The White House made it clear to us that we should be prepared to proceed on two tracks,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus. “We’re prepared to do what is necessary to get the American Jobs Plan over the finish line.”
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.