WASHINGTON — Democratic frustrations over drawn-out infrastructure negotiations boiled over on Wednesday after one failed bipartisan effort gave way to new talks, with grim prospects of bridging a chasm between the two parties.
The agitation spanned the spectrum from progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., to moderates like Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., each warning President Joe Biden not to compromise too much on priorities like tax increases on top earners or investments aimed at mitigating climate change.
Democrats are trying to press their leadership to move forward without Republicans — a demand that would be futile unless Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has called for more bipartisan outreach, agrees to move forward on a party-line basis.
“An infrastructure package that goes light on climate and clean energy should not count on every Democratic vote,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said, responding to a report in which Biden’s climate adviser Gina McCarthy warned of the difficulty of passing aggressive climate action.
Bennet, who is known for his moderate instincts, responded to Heinrich: “I agree wholeheartedly.”
Ocasio-Cortez called on Biden and Democrats to stop “playing patty-cake” with Republicans and move forward with priorities, like forcing “massive corporations and the wealthy” to “pay their fair share of taxes.”
The remarks illustrate a growing impatience among Democrats about protracted negotiations that appear unlikely to achieve a deal on the scale that Biden has said is necessary. The lawmakers, who hold key votes on Congress, represent the squeeze that Biden is in, as centrists like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., continue to call for a deal with the GOP.
Manchin is part of a new bipartisan group that includes Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. He said they met for three hours Tuesday.
“I never give up. I never give up,” Manchin told NBC News.
Many Democrats are agitating to pass a bill without Republicans under the same budget reconciliation process they used to approve the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 aid bill in March.
“Look, they can continue their talks, but we need to be moving forward on the alternative plans if those talks don’t succeed,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said. “We have one chance to have reconciliation happen. Right now we need that passed yesterday.”
For many Democrats, clean energy investments are non-negotiable.
“We must get Senate Dems unified on climate on a real reconciliation bill, lest we get sucked into ‘bipartisanship’ mud where we fail on climate,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said in a post on Twitter.
On Tuesday, Biden ended his negotiations with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, of West Virginia, who was trading offers with the president on behalf of Republican leadership for weeks. The two sides remained hundreds of billions of dollars apart, and Biden rejected their latest offer as insufficient.
A senior Senate GOP aide said that offer was probably as high as the party was willing to go.
Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he’s working to begin the process to allow a partisan vote, even as separate negotiations continue.
It’d require the votes of all 50 Democratic members to proceed.
“This country faces enormous crises,” Sanders said, calling the Republican offers on physical infrastructure “totally inadequate.”
“They’re talking about zero for climate change. Zero for housing. Zero for health care. Zero for lowering the cost of prescription drugs. Zero for childhood poverty,” he said.
In the House, the Problem Solvers Caucus, made up of 29 Democrats and 29 Republicans, floated $761.8 billion in new spending for physical infrastructure on Tuesday night.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mt., a member of the separate Senate bipartisan group, said it has “made good progress” and hopes to have a finished product soon.
“A week — and I’m just saying that as a ballpark figure,” he said. “But time is of the essence here. “
One of the irreconcilable red lines between Democrats and Republicans is taxes. Biden has called for higher taxes on corporations and people making above $400,000. Romney said Wednesday that tax increases remain a non-starter for the GOP, and that Democrats would need to do that on their own.
“Elections have consequences,” Romney said. “The Democrats have a very strong majority and can go off on their own. I think they’d be making a mistake to not have a bipartisan effort — but that’s their choice.”