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Infrastructure push on rocky ground as key Senate test vote looms

Democrats are facing a highly challenging calculus as they try to keep both efforts on track.

It’s not yet clear whether and when negotiators can turn a bipartisan framework into fully fleshed out legislative text. Aides are warning that the talks are productive, but tedious with major sticking points surrounding how to finance the package.

A Democratic aide told CNN on Sunday that Republicans and Democrats in the bipartisan group agreed to scrap plans to fund the bipartisan deal by going after individuals who had unpaid tax bills with the IRS.
“Well, one reason it’s not part of the proposal is that we did have pushback,” Sen. Rob Portman told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” when asked about Republican opposition to the idea.

“Another reason is that we found out that the Democrats were going to put a proposal into the reconciliation package, which was not just similar to the one we had, but with a lot more IRS enforcement,” the Ohio Republican said.

“That created quite a problem because the general agreement is that this is the bipartisan-negotiated infrastructure package and that we will stick with that,” added Portman, a lead Republican negotiator in the group who said he has been working with the White House on the legislation.

Republicans are also pushing back against the looming deadline with some warning it could turn GOP senators against the proposal.

“It immediately sends a signal that this is a Schumer bill and they are trying to ram something through that no one has read and hasn’t been evaluated,” Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma said. “Even the people that wrote it, can’t even read it.”

GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy, who participated in bipartisan negotiations to create the bill’s framework, also criticized the procedural vote planned for Wednesday, telling “Fox News Sunday” that he wouldn’t support it without a completed version of the bill.

“How can I vote for a cloture when the bill isn’t written? Unless you want programmed failure, unless Sen. Schumer doesn’t want this to happen, you need a little bit more time to get it right,” the Louisiana Republican said.

On a parallel track, Schumer is trying to unite the entire Senate Democratic caucus to get on board with a $3.5 trillion budget deal that some progressives feel doesn’t go far enough and some moderates have expressed misgivings over.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a pivotal Senate swing vote, made clear he’s not there yet when asked about Schumer’s Wednesday deadline for all 50 Democrats to agree to a $3.5 trillion budget.

“That’s a challenge,” Manchin said. “You know I’ll take a challenge, I’ll work as hard as I can.”

One Senate Democratic aide told CNN there is cautious optimism within the caucus that a bipartisan package and a reconciliation bill can get done, but at the same time said it wouldn’t be surprising to see the bipartisan deal “go down in flames.” The challenge for reconciliation, the aide said, is that “getting something that’s moderate enough for Manchin, but liberal enough for the Squad is not an easy ask.”

Test vote puts bipartisan deal in the spotlight

The bipartisan group of senators who secured a deal on an infrastructure framework with the White House last month worked over the weekend to translate it into legislation, but sticking points remain.

As a result, some Republicans are arguing it’s too early to set a deadline now given that it’s unclear if legislation will even be ready this week.

Asked if he would vote yes on a procedural vote if the bill text wasn’t ready, Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah and a member of the bipartisan talks, said it would be a “dereliction of duty” to advance a bill that had not been written.

“We are certainly not going to vote on a bill that hasn’t been drafted yet,” Romney said.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune cautioned that Senate Democrats’ plan to have a test on a still not-finalized bipartisan infrastructure deal could be “counterproductive” and turn off GOP senators who otherwise might support the measure.

“I see it as an artificial deadline. Our members are not likely to vote to proceed to something they haven’t seen,” the South Dakotan said. “I understand he wants to drive the process forward but it could be counterproductive on his end if he actually wants a result.”

Portman also echoed that message on Sunday, telling CNN “we don’t have a product yet.”

“And we won’t have a product until we can finish the negotiations properly,” he said. “Again, this is a complex bill — it involves several committees, it involves, you know, a lot of very tough issues because we’ve got to resolve them between us first, so again we’re meeting today. … We’re moving as fast as we can.”

The other obstacle is that the entity that decides how much legislation will affect the country’s bottom line still hasn’t weighed in. The Congressional Budget Office score is seen as a critical factor for Republican members who have yet to weigh in. Without a favorable score or with one that is estimated to add substantially to the country’s debt, Republicans argue they may not be able to back the bipartisan deal.

Thune said GOP thinking might change if a deal is quickly reached and Congressional Budget Office scoring is made available ahead of the Wednesday vote, but in the meantime there’s going to be “real concern trying to proceed to a bill that nobody’s seen.”

Schumer brushed aside concerns and projected confidence on Thursday, saying, “I’ve talked to some of our Democratic members of the bipartisan group, they’re making very good progress, there’s no reason why we can’t start voting next Wednesday, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

But the resistance among Republicans signals potential peril for the bipartisan effort and underscores the fragility of the negotiations.

Reconciliation push will test Democratic unity

At the same time, to advance other significant elements of Biden’s infrastructure agenda, Senate Democrats must unite behind a budget deal in order to push ahead with a Democrats-only bill that includes priorities left out of the bipartisan deal. The bill they are eyeing would include everything from immigration to health care expansion to tax increases for Americans making more than $400,000 annually.

Democrats on the Budget Committee announced late Tuesday that they had struck an agreement on a $3.5 trillion budget resolution that would be a first step toward unlocking their ability to pass their own infrastructure bill later this year.

There have already been some promising signs that lawmakers from different ends of the ideological spectrum will get behind the plan.

Budget Committee Chair Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats and who originally pushed for a much broader package with a goal of spending as much as $6 trillion, endorsed the plan Tuesday night calling it a “big deal.”

Moderate Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who played a key role in the budget negotiation, joined Sanders in endorsing the plan.

“I’ve done this job for about 12 years. I can’t think of a more meaningful effort that we’re taking on, than what we’re doing right now,” Warner said.

It’s not yet clear, however, if all 50 Senate Democrats will ultimately support the package.

Manchin, who hails from coal-producing West Virginia, has already expressed concerns over climate change-related provisions that progressives have pushed for.

“I know they have the climate portion in here, and I’m concerned about that,” Manchin said moments after Biden met with Senate Democrats in the Capitol on Wednesday.

The West Virginia Democrat wouldn’t say though if the climate provisions would be a dealbreaker for him. “I think reasonable people, if you show them the facts, and you agree that these are the facts, you’ll make the adjustments accordingly, and that’s what I’m hopeful for,” he said, adding, “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure the United States of America remains energy independent.”

Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and swing vote, said of the $3.5 trillion price tag: “That’s a big amount.” He made clear, however, he is open to it depending on what’s in it and how it’s paid for. Asked if he was ruling it out, he told CNN, “Absolutely not.”

“That’s a big amount,” Tester said. “Yeah, I think we just got to figure out how it’s being spent, and how it’s being applied, figure out how it’s going to be paid for, and then make the assessment.”

CNN’s Manu Raju, Ali Zaslav, Ted Barrett and Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.

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