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Senate Republicans, White House Move Closer To Infrastructure Deal

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sometimes the simplest thing to compromise is a debate over numbers. You tell your kid to go to bed in 10 minutes. She asks for 20. You settle on 15. It ends up being 45, but never mind about that.

Congress faces a similar debate over numbers in an infrastructure bill, though the numbers are a bit larger. Republicans yesterday offered to spend more than $900 billion on things like roads, bridges, broadband internet and water pipes. President Biden wants around double that. In theory, they could just meet in the middle. But there are other factors. Republicans disagree on how to spend the money. And on MSNBC, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren doubted whether Republicans want a deal at all.

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ELIZABETH WARREN: I don't really think this is a serious counteroffer. First of all, they don't have pay force for this. It's not real. They have this illusory notion of how we're going to take money that's already been committed to other places and to other spending.

INSKEEP: The Republican proposal does not include taxes to pay for it all. NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is following the debate. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let's start with Elizabeth Warren's supposition there that this is not serious. Is this a real negotiation?

DETROW: You know, President Biden indicates he still thinks so. And there are some political reasons for Biden to view it that way as well. But a lot of Democrats are like Warren. They're very skeptical. And that's for a couple of reasons. First, many Democrats are just worried Republicans do not really want to cut any sort of deal, that they're just trying to slow talks down. Shelley Moore Capito, who's leading Republican side of talks, insists these are good faith negotiations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: It sticks to the core infrastructure features that we talked to initially. It's a serious effort to try to reach a bipartisan agreement.

DETROW: And then the second dynamic is the dollar figure. You know, the top line spending Republicans are talking about do not tell the whole story. Their latest proposal is about a trillion dollars. But that proposal includes a lot of already-planned-for spending. So Capito and other Senate Republicans are really talking about less than $300 billion in new infrastructure spending, which is very far off from the $1.7 trillion that Biden is talking about right now.

INSKEEP: Oh, otherwise, they're committing to commit to spend money that is already committed. OK, but it hasn't...

DETROW: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Been spent in fairness to the Republican point of view. Where do the talks stand now? Give me a few more numbers here.

DETROW: So a quick recap - the president started out with more than $2 trillion in infrastructure spending he wanted to see, and that does not even include the additional $2 trillion that the president laid out later on broader spending, things like boosting child care. So Biden started there. And even though he is proposing this big expansion of government, he has insisted he wants to cut some sort of bipartisan deal.

And very importantly, politically, some centrist lawmakers in that 50-50 Senate where every vote counts, people like Joe Manchin from West Virginia, have indicated they want to see a bipartisan deal as well. So the White House has been in talks with Capito and several other Senate Republicans. They started about $500 billion. They've now come up. And at the same time, the White House has come down a little. Biden had said he wanted to see some sort of progress by Memorial Day. And this seems to count. And he's going to keep talking to them for now.

INSKEEP: What is the disagreement that Elizabeth Warren mentioned about how to pay for all this?

DETROW: So a lot of it comes down to how to pay for it. Biden has said he wants to undo some of the corporate tax cuts from the Trump years. Republican leaders have said that is a non-starter. At the same time, they say they don't want to borrow more money. So here's this argument of using unspent money. But the White House says a lot of that COVID money is already accounted for. It's not flexible.

INSKEEP: So where's all this going, Scott?

DETROW: Biden does see it in his interest to keep these negotiations going. He's clearly listening to members of his party who are growing impatient. I don't think Biden is going to keep these talks going all summer. Biden has said he wants this voted on by the end of the summer. And the White House seems to be sticking to that framework even though this Memorial Day deadline is coming and going, and talks are continuing.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow. Scott, thanks.

DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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