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Where Infrastructure Negotiations Stand In Congress


President Joe Biden scored a major early win in his first days in office with a nearly $2 trillion stimulus package, but since then, the Democratic majority in control of Congress has struggled to advance the Biden agenda. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis joins us now in person in studio to talk about what Democrats have planned for the road ahead.

Good morning, Sue.


DETROW: So we have to start with a pun. Infrastructure has continued to drown out everything else in D.C. But, you know, just to recap, President Biden tried to cut a deal with moderate Republicans. It didn't happen. Now there is this new wave of Senate moderate talks - some Republicans, some Democrats. There seems to be some sort of deal-ish thing right now. What's the status?

DAVIS: So after the president was unable to reach a deal with Senate Republicans on his own, this group of moderates sort of self-appointed themselves into a new round of negotiations. It was not directly with the White House or party leaders, but they have come up with an agreement amongst themselves. Now, this is only 10 senators, five Republicans and five Democrats. Obviously, that is not the supermajority of 60 you would need to get legislation through, but it's an important group of people.

And what they're hoping to do with this proposal - it's about $1.2 trillion with about half a trillion in new spending, a lot lower than Joe Biden would like but a lot more than a lot of Republicans would - is that they can grow it from the center out. And so Republicans, led by Rob Portman of Ohio, are going to try to bring party leaders on board and see if people like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can support it. And the Democrats, led by Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, have been reaching out to the White House and their party leaders to say, hey, can we get any buy-in on this?

DETROW: The focus has been on the moderates, especially the Democratic moderates. But in the last few days especially, we have heard a lot of progressives in both the House and the Senate - and as you've said a lot of times, not many margins in either chamber for Democrats...

DAVIS: Right.

DETROW: ...To win if there's defections saying, we don't like this. We are not going to vote. We are going to vote against and even push against any sort of package that cuts down the climate agenda that was in the initial plan. How big of a problem is that?

DAVIS: You know, I keep describing this as a Goldilocks problem for the Biden White House because if you go too big, you're unlikely to get any Republican support, and if you go too small, you risk losing enough Democratic support to put it in jeopardy as well.

You know, Democrats look at the 2020 election - a lot of the ones that I speak to on Capitol Hill - and they won the House, they won the White House, they won the Senate, and they do not see the majority as existing to protect the Donald Trump tax cuts, which is a big issue here. Republicans say they won't vote for anything that rolls back any portion of the tax cuts. Democrats feel very strongly, and they want to use that revenue specifically to attack things like climate change in the infrastructure package. A bill with no climate provisions or minimal climate provisions would - likely to run into a whole new wave of opposition among Democrats.

DETROW: You have done some reporting lately on Kyrsten Sinema...


DETROW: ...The moderate Democrat in the middle of all of this. What is her angle here?

DAVIS: You know, she doesn't get as much focus as Joe Manchin, even though they politically occupy sort of the same oxygen in the Senate. Part of it's stylistic. Manchin is much more comfortable talking to the press. He holds court a lot in the Capitol. She is a senator who's a bit of a contradiction. Her outward persona is a lot different than she carries herself. She's kind of known for these flashy fashion choices. She wore purple wigs during COVID - that kind of thing.

You know, they are two people who I would say - and there's other moderates in the Senate, but these are the two moderates who I think more than anything else say they exist to protect the 60-vote filibuster and the rules to keep the Senate to make it harder to pass things with simple majorities. And they really believe in pushing for bipartisanship at all costs, even if it means angering the progressive left.

DETROW: This infrastructure debate has blocked out the sun in D.C. for a couple of months now.

DAVIS: Yeah.

DETROW: What does that mean for other policies? What is getting crowded out because of the focus on this?

DAVIS: You know, you're starting to hear this frustration more and more from Democrats, specifically - you know, political capital comes in short supply. You have to pick and choose how to use it. Obviously, the White House has made infrastructure and pandemic recovery a big part of that. But there is a growing chorus of lawmakers on the Hill who think that the focus on infrastructure - one that a lot of them say, let's just move on. Let's forget these Republicans, and let's do this our own way through special budget rules they can try to use to end-run around Republicans.

Specifically, some of the things there's a growing number of frustration about is voting rights legislation, which we know obviously has a big uphill battle on Capitol Hill. But the lack of focus - so much focus on infrastructure is detracting from this other focus of voting rights legislation that I think a lot of Democrats increasingly looking at 2022 see a big, bright, blazing fire that they want to try to put out and try to advance some goals there or at least focus the American attention onto the issue of voting rights.

DETROW: And the one thing that this infrastructure and climate proposals and voting rights have in common is that there are not 60 votes for them in the Senate right now.

DAVIS: Correct.

DETROW: So even though Democrats have the majority, they feel like they don't have a path forward unless they make big changes.

DAVIS: Yes. And Senate Minority (ph) Leader Chuck Schumer is going to provoke this issue of the filibuster. He's planning to bring up legislation this summer that's going to show that they don't have votes to pass things like gay rights agenda, gender parity equity or paycheck legislation. So we're going to see this filibuster debate really dominate throughout the rest of the summer.

DETROW: All right, and we will be covering it. That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

Thank you for joining us.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.