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Biden And Harris Met With Bipartisan Lawmakers To Negotiate Infrastructure Package

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Washington, President Biden passed his first big legislative accomplishment, the pandemic relief bill, without a single Republican vote - not one. Now he insists he wants to work with both Democrats and Republicans to pass an infrastructure and jobs plan. Today a group of lawmakers from both parties went to the Oval Office to see if they could find some agreement. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been monitoring this.

Hey there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So who was there today at the White House? And do we know what they discussed?

LIASSON: It was a very precisely divided group - four Republicans, four Democrats evenly divided between the House and Senate. Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi was there, Deb Fischer of Nebraska on the Democratic side, Maria Cantwell, Alex Padilla of California, who happened to have replaced Kamala Harris in the Senate. These are Republicans that have key committee positions that have to do with infrastructure. They're not your predictable group of moderates like Lisa Murkowski or Joe Manchin and Susan Collins. These are people who would talk about the actual policy solutions rather than find a quick path to some topline number for how big the bill should be.

KELLY: And what are the road bumps along that quick path? What are the big disagreements? Yeah.

LIASSON: Yeah. The biggest road bump is pretty basic. What is infrastructure? The White House has a very expansive definition of infrastructure - not just roads and bridges. Here's how President Biden explained it today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The fact that we have millions of people not able to drink water because there's lead in their - it's coming through led pipes - I think that's infrastructure. I think broadband is infrastructure. It's not just roads, bridges, highways, et cetera.

LIASSON: So according to the White House proposal, it's also electric vehicle chargers, making sure we make semiconductors in the United States instead of buying them from China, long-term care facilities, universal pre-K. So there's human infrastructure. There's technologies of the future. Today the White House put out a fact sheet for every single state laying out the economic cost of not doing more in all of these areas they call infrastructure. Meanwhile, Republicans are putting out talking points that say this isn't infrastructure at all. It's just a big liberal wish list dressed up as infrastructure.

KELLY: And how hard is it going to be to persuade them otherwise? How serious is that effort?

LIASSON: I think the effort is serious. I think it will be very hard. The safest bet nowadays is always to bet against bipartisanship. But remember; the last time around, the president proposed a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill. Republicans came back with a $600 billion bill. The gap was just too big to bridge. Biden ended up passing it with Democratic votes alone. This time, Biden's number is much bigger - over $2 trillion in infrastructure spending. He wants to raise corporate taxes to 28%. But he's also been saying that he is open to negotiation. Groups of moderate Democrats say they want those tax hikes to be smaller. And this time around, Biden has a little more time. Remember; COVID relief was an emergency bill. Now the White House says they want to wait till Memorial Day to see if a bipartisan package of bills can be created. But Republicans are adamantly against any tax hikes to pay for this.

KELLY: And explain, Mara, a distinction the White House seems to be drawing. They have been arguing, yes, we want Republican support for all this, but we don't necessarily need Republicans in Congress. If Republican voters are on board, that would be bipartisanship. So, I mean, what does that tell you about how much Biden really wants or needs Republican support here?

LIASSON: Well, that's the million-dollar or trillion-dollar question.

KELLY: Yeah.

LIASSON: I think Joe Biden would love to pass something with Republican support. It's in his DNA. But you're right. The Democrats are moving forward with plans to pass the bill in the Senate under reconciliation, which would allow them to need only 51 votes if necessary. So they're moving forward to make sure they can pass it no matter what, even if they don't get Republican support. And also, defining bipartisanship, as you said, by whether Republican voters like the infrastructure plan as opposed to members of Congress who are Republicans...

KELLY: Right.

LIASSON: ...Who might want to vote for it...

KELLY: Right.

LIASSON: ...Almost seems designed to tick off Republicans, to imply that they're not in touch with the electorate.

KELLY: OK.

LIASSON: But, you know, Republicans don't have to answer to voters at large. They care about their base voters.

KELLY: Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.