Republicans Present $928 Billion Counteroffer to Biden on Infrastructure

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans countered President Biden’s latest $1.7 trillion infrastructure plan on Thursday with a blueprint to provide roughly $257 billion in new funding for roads, bridges and other public works projects, offering a small fraction of what Mr. Biden is seeking as negotiations on the package reach a critical stage.

The Republican plan would total $928 billion over eight years, but most of that money would come from maintaining existing programs, with the amount of new spending amounting to less than one-seventh of the sum that Mr. Biden has requested for an expansive infrastructure initiative.

The $1.4 trillion gulf in new spending between the Republican proposal and the president’s reflected deeply held differences between the two sides over the package, and the long odds standing in the way of any bipartisan compromise. Republicans want to limit any infrastructure deal to traditional public works projects like roads, bridges and public transportation, while Mr. Biden has pitched a far more ambitious plan to include expansions of the social safety net. And they remain divided over how to finance the package.

Still, with the president determined to keep his pledge to pursue a bipartisan deal, the White House left the door open for the talks to continue into early June, when Congress returns from a weeklong Memorial Day break. Mr. Biden, who flew to Ohio on Thursday to deliver remarks about the economy, spoke briefly with Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the lead Republican negotiator, and agreed to give the discussions more time.

“He wants to keep working with us,” Ms. Capito said afterward. “He didn’t make any commitment as to the substance, but he wants to continue working.”

“He himself personally called me,” she added, “and I think that carries the heaviest weight.”

But major differences remain. Republicans have suggested paying for much of their proposal by repurposing funds from the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief law, an approach that White House officials have rejected. Republican senators, for their part, are opposed to Mr. Biden’s proposals for large tax increases on corporations and wealthy taxpayers to finance the package, which would involve rolling back pieces of the tax cut Republicans pushed through in 2017.

Several Democrats, wary of losing valuable time to act on their highest priorities, are urging leaders to abandon the bipartisan talks and use the fast-track budget reconciliation process to advance the legislation, shielding it from a filibuster and allowing it to pass exclusively with Democratic votes.

“The Republican proposal goes nowhere near far enough,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont and the chairman of the Budget Committee, who has instructed his staff to begin work on legislation that could trigger the reconciliation process. “I think we have learned a lesson from the Obama years that we’re not going to negotiate forever.”

But some centrist Democrats, including Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, are reluctant to circumvent Republicans altogether, pressing to reach a bipartisan deal.

Most of the funds in the Republican plan come from the expected continuation of existing federal programs, with proposed increases for roads, bridges, water infrastructure, passenger and freight rail, water storage and airports. Of the $928 billion, $506 billion would be directed toward roads, bridges and major projects; $65 billion toward broadband; $56 billion toward airports; and $98 billion toward public transit systems.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee also unanimously advanced on Wednesday a $304 billion reauthorization transportation bill, an effort that Ms. Capito described as “part of the package that the president should be able to distinguish as part of his infrastructure.”

The group jettisoned several elements of Mr. Biden’s plan, including billions of dollars to address climate change, lead pipes, elder care and home care. Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, called the broader provisions “basically socialism camouflaged as infrastructure” that included “massive tax increases, which are going to hurt the economy.”

“What makes them think we want to undo the tax reform that gave us the best economy of my lifetime?” Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania. “We believe that repurposing these funds needs to be a really important part of how we fill this gap.”

The Republicans who worked on the proposal — a group that also included Senators Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Roger Wicker of Mississippi — said their plan reflected private conversations during an Oval Office meeting about the parameters of an infrastructure package, including funding levels that reflect existing programs.

In a memo to the president outlining the plan, the group said that Mr. Biden had “expressed a funding target of at least $1 trillion over an eight-year period and that baseline funding levels could be included in that target.” Since that meeting, and the exchange of additional offers, some have charged that staff have influenced Mr. Biden in balking at a narrower package.

“As a group, we were explicit that policies unrelated to physical infrastructure do not fit in this package,” they wrote. “This is not because we do not value these important issues. We simply believe that these policies should be addressed in separate legislation that does not dilute our shared objective of passing this package.”

Their initial proposal totaled $568 billion, but Biden administration officials said it was no more than $225 billion “above current levels Congress has traditionally funded.” Mr. Biden, for his part, shaved more than $500 billion from his original $2.3 trillion offer, but remained firm on his proposed tax increases.

It was not clear how long Democrats were willing to give the talks before resorting to reconciliation to muscle through their own plan without Republican votes, as they did this year on the pandemic relief measure. That would require the backing of all 50 senators and could strictly limit what could be in the package, which is subject to stringent budgeting rules.

“Fundamental, durable policy is not achieved when one political party pushes through legislation on their own,” said Neil Bradley, the executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We urge continued bipartisan discussions so our nation’s infrastructure receives the modernization it desperately needs.”

A bipartisan group of centrist senators is also quietly discussing its own proposal as a fallback option should talks between Republican senators and the White House collapse. In a statement responding to the Republican plan on Thursday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said administration officials were “also continuing to explore other proposals that we hope will emerge.”

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