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Bipartisan infrastructure talks sputtering along with little time left

<i>Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images</i><br/>
Getty Images
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

By Lauren Fox, CNN

After spending the weekend negotiating, lawmakers have yet to clinch a bipartisan infrastructure deal, a precarious sign for senators who have months trying to cement a massive, bipartisan win for President Joe Biden.

The talks are “inching along” and they aren’t going any faster than that, one source familiar told CNN over the weekend. After days of painstaking talks over transit funding, broadband and water, the group still hasn’t resolved a series of core issues as of this morning, undercutting the rosy depictions from lawmakers about where things stand and raising serious questions about if a group of ad hoc negotiators can really close this deal at all. Members held a series of talks Sunday with each other and key committee chairs and ranking members to try and close out remaining items. They just aren’t there.

What’s new?

A Democratic source close to the bipartisan infrastructure talks tells us that on Sunday night the Democratic negotiators alongside the White House sent the Republicans a fresh “global offer” that sought to close out the major outstanding issues from highway funding to water funding to broadband. The group’s offer also included potential resolutions to the issue of Davis-Bacon, which requires companies who get government contracts to pay prevailing wages on big projects, and ways to use unspent Covid-19 relief money and the infrastructure bank as pay-fors.

If it sounds like there is a lot outstanding, that is because there is. When Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the top GOP negotiator in the group, said Sunday that they were 90% there, that very well may be the case. But right now, the remaining 10% isn’t easy to close out. It’s been more than a month since the group announced a framework. They have no legislative text and a steady stream of scores from the Congressional Budget Office have made it clear that the bill may not be fully paid for, which could make it a challenging vote for some Republicans.

So will Schumer call this quits soon?

As the majority leader with control of the floor, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York has the power to put pressure on this group, set deadlines and ultimately pull the plug on this if he wants to.

But as we saw last week from the failed vote Wednesday, the tactic of playing hardball hasn’t yielded results yet. Instead, Schumer’s facing a two-pronged obstacle to calling it quits: a White House that is still very committed to reaching a bipartisan deal and a series of moderate members deeply entrenched in the negotiations who aren’t ready to give up yet and have the power to block Schumer’s separate budget reconciliation proposal if the leader tries to close the door on their deal.

Keep in mind

Schumer can bring up another key procedural vote any time he wants. But he can only do that one more time without having to file cloture again and start the clock all over. If you are Schumer, you don’t want to waste that opportunity. Watch for when Schumer holds that next vote because it either means the bipartisan group has a deal or the Democratic leader is seriously trying to move on.

What’s the timeline?

How long this negotiation last is fully dependent on when Democratic senators like Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia think it is over. It’s that simple. Schumer has little recourse in shutting this down if the White House and key Democrats want to keep going. Yes, the August recess is right around the corner. Yes, he needs to begin work very soon on a massive budget if he wants to pass it before lawmakers leave for the break. But, there is a reason that Manchin hasn’t publicly committed to backing that $3.5 trillion budget outline. Some of it is because not all of the details are available, but a lot of it has to do with leverage. Suspending commitment for the budget means more room to keep working on this bipartisan negotiation and until that changes, the bipartisan deal looks like it is still alive.

Other challenges for the bipartisan group

One of the biggest risks of pulling together an ad hoc bipartisan gang to negotiate big pieces of legislation is that the people whose job it is to normally write the legislation — chairs and ranking members — aren’t in the room when some major decisions get made and members don’t have the resources that the full committee has like staff expertise on how to iron out thorny issues. Sometimes going around those top members can break things lose, sometimes it’s the only way to get a deal. But, when you are dealing with legislation as complicated, unwieldy and multi-faceted as this when multiple interests are at play, it can be risky.

Member of the bipartisan group have said they are consulting with key committee chairs and that’s true, but some cracks have emerged like Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who signaled last week he wouldn’t back the bipartisan group’s bill unless the water provisions were fully paid for. When you are trying to get 60 votes and can count on just a handful of Republicans to back a bill, you can’t afford to lose Democrats on these big negotiations.

What to watch this week

Last week, liberal members were already growing tired of watching the bipartisan talks sputter along without a resolution. We’ve heard from Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Chris Murphy of Connecticut that it is time to move on and begin work on the Democratic-only reconciliation route. Some progressives have been saying this for more than a month. That fever pitch is only going to grow in the days ahead if this bipartisan group doesn’t get a deal soon.

Again, this effort is and always was in part about getting moderate Democrats to a point where they felt like bipartisanship was exhausted. If that yielded a deal, great. If it didn’t, it might at least help clarify that the Democratic-only route was the right — and only — way left to go.

Speaking of reconciliation

Don’t assume that if the bipartisan talks breakdown, Democrats’ efforts to go it alone are going to materialize quickly.

Schumer still doesn’t have commitment from all 50 Democrats to back the budget resolution, which is the first step. And even if the budget passes, Democrats will spend the fall in an excruciatingly long caucus-wide debate about how far to expand the social safety net, how and where to raise taxes and whether it’s the right time to try and force questions about expanding immigration and overhauling the cost of prescription drugs.

Each one of these issues could face resistance within their own ranks. Each one of these issues could become a major campaign attack against vulnerable Democrats. And it is always a good reminder that Schumer cannot afford to lose a single vote.

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