Democrats ramp up pressure for infrastructure deal amid time crunch

WASHINGTON (thehill): Democrats are upping pressure on the bipartisan group negotiating a sweeping legislative package to finalize its agreement as they face a growing time crunch heading toward August.

Democrats have vowed to make progress on President Biden’s top legislative priority, a wide-ranging infrastructure and spending package. But they’ve struggled to move forward with behind-the-scenes negotiations, missing self-imposed deadlines weeks after Biden and a core group of senators announced a deal on a $1.2 trillion framework.

Though some progressives have backed throwing everything into a massive package that they could pass without Republicans, that’s not yet possible in the Senate, where key moderates are laser-focused on the bipartisan deal. Instead, Democrats, largely stuck on the sidelines, are increasingly going public with their push for the bipartisan gang to close out their talks, underscoring the anxiety within the caucus about the glacial pace.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is pulling out a well-known leadership strategy for trying to push an agreement forward: threatening the chamber’s Thursday afternoon escape hatch from Washington.

“Senators should prepare to work through the weekend in order to finish the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” Schumer said.

He went further with reporters, warning that “we’re going to get this done through the August recess, if we have to stay. Period.”

Biden also leaned into the talks on Tuesday, meeting with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who has led the negotiations for the Democrats.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said they were “very much aligned” and “optimistic” but acknowledged that “it is always at the tail end that you have some of the trickiest discussions.” Psaki also indicated that Biden could be reaching out to lawmakers as they try to get the negotiations across the finish line.

The efforts to help steer the group toward a conclusion come as the Senate negotiators have suggested for weeks that they are closing in on a deal, yet never seem to clinch it.

That has sparked confusion among some Democrats, who have also warned that GOP leadership could be using the extra time to water down the deal or sink it altogether.

“I salute the bipartisan group, but it’s time to close the deal,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters.

Durbin separately suggested that he thought the talks had gone long enough and warned that “it gets more complicated” the longer they drag out

“I thought they had reached an agreement. I thought they were that close. … But keep in mind that the longer it goes, Mitch McConnell’s hand gets stronger,” Durbin said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has been involved in the transit portion, told reporters, “Don’t forget always that Mitch McConnell has said he wants Joe Biden to fail.”

“Mitch McConnell has not shown any real interest in coming to a deal. We get closer and they slow-walk. … That’s the Mitch McConnell and whoever his acolytes are way of negotiating for a decade,” Brown said.

The rolling negotiations have effectively left the Senate in limbo. Schumer has vowed that he will hold votes before the chamber leaves for a weeks-long summer break on both the bipartisan deal and the budget resolution, which will greenlight a separate $3.5 trillion bill that they want to pass under a budget process that lets them avoid needing GOP votes.

Part of the complication for Schumer is that the two tracks are tied together. In order to pass the $3.5 trillion deal and the budget resolution that sets it up, he will need total unity for all 50 members of his caucus. But moderates have indicated they want at least part of Biden’s package to be bipartisan and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) warned after a closed-door meeting this week that he didn’t think the larger package happened if the bipartisan deal fell apart.

“I would say that if the bipartisan infrastructure bill falls apart then everything would fall apart,” Manchin told reporters.

Schumer is facing a growing to-do list: He also wants to pass a roughly $2 billion Capitol security supplemental bill as soon as this week after Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the top two members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced they had reached an agreement.

“Everybody knows we’re behind schedule, so my feeling is we’ve got to stay until we get this done,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We’re at crunch time, so let’s stay here until we get both of these bills done.”

Schumer acknowledged that he’s tried to nudge the bipartisan group toward a deal as the Senate’s scheduled exit date, Aug. 9, draws nearer.

He initially set a Wednesday deadline last week to try to start debate, but Republicans blocked that effort as the bipartisan group struggled to finalize its deal. He and the White House then sent a “global” offer on Sunday night they hoped would address all of the group’s unresolved issues.

“I’ve been doing everything to speed them along, first with the motion to proceed on Wednesday and second with the global offer that we made Sunday night. We’re getting close,” he said.

Instead, Republicans have criticized Schumer and the White House for their Sunday offer, insisting they threw a curveball into the talks. The negotiations appeared to be on the brink of collapse earlier this week, though negotiators seemed confident that they were getting back on track.

The Senate negotiators indicate that as of Tuesday their sticking points had largely been boiled down to two areas: transit, where they’ve been struggling to break a stalemate for days, and broadband, where Republicans are accusing Democrats of trying to fix rates.

“It threw the negotiations through a loop. … That appears to have been largely driven by the majority leader,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine.). “But we’re trying to get things back on track, and we are making progress.”