Infrastructure negotiators’ new deadline: ‘ASAP’

After a brief breakdown in negotiations, senators still confident of a deal

Sen. Mitt Romney, pictured during a June negotiating session, said Monday that accusations that he reneged on an agreement to fully fund the Senate water bill were "a little strange."
 (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Mitt Romney, pictured during a June negotiating session, said Monday that accusations that he reneged on an agreement to fully fund the Senate water bill were "a little strange." (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 26, 2021 at 10:32am, Updated at 7:30pm

Bipartisan negotiators worked to regroup after a brief breakdown in their efforts to craft an infrastructure bill Monday, with senators involved in the talks saying they’re still confident they’ll get a deal.

“You can never be 100 percent confident of almost anything except death and taxes, but I think we’re making good progress,” said negotiator Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, hours after Democrats accused him of reneging on an agreement on the water portion of the bill.

Asked if he was ready to give up on the negotiations, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., said, “Oh, hell no, we’re not pulling the plug.”

“This is heading in the right direction,” insisted Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the lead GOP negotiator.

Negotiators say Portman, along with White House adviser Steve Ricchetti, have taken the lead in negotiating with the group. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said such a development was to be expected.

“Look at it this way: If we have 10 people and we’re all negotiating, then things don’t happen,” Tester said. “On any big piece of legislation, it usually comes down to a couple of people, and that’s what we’ve done.”

He said the deadline to reach a deal, which had been informally set for Monday, was now “ASAP.”

The happy talk came in sharp contrast to the mood earlier in the day, when Republicans and Democrats exchanged barbs over the negotiations and former President Donald Trump weighed in to urge Republicans not to make a deal.

The White House and Senate Democratic leadership sent Republicans a “global offer” on Sunday night aimed at finishing unresolved items such as highways and bridges, water funding, broadband, Davis-Bacon Act standards, transit, unspent COVID-19 dollars and an infrastructure bank, according to a Democratic source close to the talks.

The source said the global offer accepted a Republican offer on highways under the condition that Republicans acceded to Democratic demands on transit, a sticking point during the negotiations.

Reopening issues

But Republican negotiators said that offer reopened many issues that they believed had been resolved, according to a GOP source to the talks.

The Democratic source also said Romney “reneged” on an agreement to fully fund the Senate water bill and dedicate an additional $15 billion to address lead pipe water contamination issues. “Romney reneged on [the] deal and proposed something completely unworkable,” the source said.

“This is laughably false,” Romney’s office replied. “As the White House’s own website shows, the deal on water was for $55 billion in new spending. After days of radio silence, [Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer] now wants $70 billion. This is a direct violation of the bipartisan agreement.”

By late Monday, Romney was dismissing the accusation as “a little strange.”

“The deal was 55 [billion] above baseline and it’s 55 [billion] above baseline,” he said, saying that money was appropriated while the $15 billion in baseline was “authorized but not appropriated.”

“That’s where we’ve always been,” he said. “We authorize, we don’t appropriate in the baseline, but we appropriate the $55 billion above the baseline.”

The group was struggling to finalize agreement after a procedural vote last week scheduled over GOP negotiators’ objections was defeated. After that vote, Republican negotiators initially said they believed they’d be able to announce a deal as soon as Monday.

Schumer pushed the procedural vote in part because has set a deadline of passing the bipartisan bill and beginning the process for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion social spending package before the Senate’s August recess.

Trump, meanwhile, threw a verbal hand grenade into the negotiations early Monday, issuing a statement saying Senate Republicans were being “absolutely savaged by Democrats on the so-called ‘bipartisan’ infrastructure bill.”

Mitch McConnell and his small group of RINOs wants nothing more than to get a deal done at any cost to prove that he can work with the Radical Left Democrats,” he said, urging Republicans not to back the deal “until after we get proper election results in 2022 or otherwise, and regain a strong negotiating stance.

“Republicans, don’t let the Radical Left play you for weak fools and losers!" he said.

For his part, Schumer said on the floor Monday that the Senate may stay in session through the weekend in order to finish the bill, warning that “further delays may mean that the Senate will remain in session into the previously scheduled August recess.”