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Infrastructure Talks Between The White House And GOP Senators Collapse

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden is making a last ditch effort to get Republican support for his infrastructure bill. But Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says Democrats are also moving forward with plans to go it alone. The president had been negotiating with Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito for weeks, but talks ended yesterday with no bipartisan deal to show for it. This raises questions on whether a deal of any sort is still possible. Joining us now, the secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg. Thanks so much for being with us.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Explain why President Biden saw that it was necessary to end the talks with Senator Capito.

BUTTIGIEG: Well, the president appreciated the effort and the goodwill from the senator and the group that she was leading. But ultimately, it simply didn't rise to the level that's going to be needed in order to meet the country's objectives right now. I mean, you look at where we are, falling out of the top 10 in infrastructure. You look at the need to deal with climate change. And what they put forward simply isn't going to get there. The president was willing to move about a trillion dollars in the course of these negotiations. The group led by Senator Capito couldn't move more than about 150 billion. And so in the end, it just didn't add up.

MARTIN: Although she argues that what Republicans were putting forward through her plan did amount to a trillion dollars.

BUTTIGIEG: Again, it was so far apart from what the president believes is needed that they simply couldn't move forward. But there are other conversations going on. The president's spoken with a number of senators, and we think, at the end of the day, it's still absolutely possible for there to be a bipartisan deal on this in Washington because there's bipartisan desire for it around the country. Now, look.

MARTIN: So how...

BUTTIGIEG: Americans know that we need better roads and bridges, that we need to deal with lead pipes, provide internet for everybody. This is wildly popular among Americans of both parties.

MARTIN: How does this happen, though? Because as you know, there wasn't even one Republican vote in support of the COVID relief bill. I mean, this is arguably more complicated. It's more ideological. How do you get Republican support?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, ultimately, of course, it's up to the Republicans, what they're prepared to support. But what we know is that there are conversations going on right now among members from both parties who want to get there, more than any other subject in domestic policy. I think there is a lot of overlap, if not consensus, about the need to do something. We can't remain a C-minus country in infrastructure and expect to lead the world.

MARTIN: I...

BUTTIGIEG: Bottom line, though, is that something has to get done. And the president has said repeatedly that inaction is the ultimate redline.

MARTIN: So he's now meeting - he's ended the Capito talks. He's now meeting with a different group of Republican senators, a bipartisan group. How is the result in those conversations going to be any different? I mean, is the administration willing to concede something else in order to break the stalemate? Or is it just more talking to Republicans for the sake of saying you did it before you use budget reconciliation to push it through?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, obviously, this is a good faith negotiation because if the objective were simply to be able to say that we've been negotiating, I mean, look; we've been doing that for weeks. We're already there. This is about what we can actually get done. And again, talk to a lot of Republicans who want to see something happen. We'll see if another configuration of bipartisan senators can yield results. But either way, something has to happen. You know, just a few days ago, I was down in Memphis where one bridge going out because of a giant crack in a steel beam has paralyzed the ability of many truckers and others to get to where they need to be - just one example of what we face in a country where we've allowed our infrastructure to degrade. Citizens in other countries can expect levels of train service and transit as a matter of course that are the envy of American communities. And...

MARTIN: So...

BUTTIGIEG: ...The president is watching our allies and our competitors, like China, invest. We can't keep falling behind.

MARTIN: I need you to clarify, though. I hear you saying a bipartisan bill is preferable. But will the administration move forward with a reconciliation process that would avoid a filibuster and get this legislation through just with Democratic votes?

BUTTIGIEG: We're going to pursue multiple paths because it has to happen, but a bipartisan outcome is strongly preferred.

MARTIN: So that means yes, that the administration, if you can't secure Republican support through this last mechanism, that you will move with budget reconciliation.

BUTTIGIEG: We'd prefer to do it together, but we have to get it done.

MARTIN: So does this mean the administration has any interest in supporting the bill from the self-described Problem Solvers Caucus? This is a bipartisan group in Congress. They've come up with a bill of $1.2 trillion.

BUTTIGIEG: So this is another example of just how much is going on in Congress and in Washington this week. I know this has been covered as a sort of binary thing. It's on, or it's off; this talk succeeded, or it failed. But you got the Problem Solvers putting forward ideas. You've got the senators like Senators Cassidy and Manchin and Sinema that the senator - that the president spoke with yesterday. As we speak today, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is getting ready to do its markup, which will carry a key element of this. So there are a lot of overlapping groups, overlapping conversations. That's a good thing. And that's part of the push-pull of the legislative process. But it can't go on forever, and it has to yield something big, bold and meaningful this summer.

MARTIN: If you move forward - if you are forced to move forward with a party-line vote using reconciliation, you would need every single Democrat to be on board, and you don't have that. Joe Manchin has already indicated he's not willing to back a bill that doesn't have Republicans on board. So how does that option even move forward?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, it's all hypothetical until there's the text of an actual bill. But I'll tell you, I've heard Senator Manchin talk about the need for big infrastructure and an openness to pay for it through a reasonable taxation of corporations. So we're going to keep working, keep talking and see where we can get.

MARTIN: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, thanks for your time.

BUTTIGIEG: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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