By Makini Brice and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Democrats in the U.S. Congress on Tuesday criticized a $1.2 trillion infrastructure proposal by a bipartisan group of Senate moderates as neglecting some of their key priorities, raising questions about the measure’s fate.
Democratic leaders are discussing a two-step process in which they pass a smaller bill with bipartisan support but then follow up with a second measure passed through reconciliation, which would require nearly 100% party unity given President Joe Biden’s Democrats’ razor-thin majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The Senate proposal, which emerged after negotiations between Biden and Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito collapsed last week, insufficiently addresses climate change and other Democratic goals, including spending on healthcare and childcare, Democrats said.
The $1.2 trillion package, to span eight years, is below Biden’s most recent proposal of $1.7 trillion. The two parties also disagree about how to pay for infrastructure and have not yet released details of how the money would be spent.
“I think we should go bigger,” said Richard Neal, chairman of the House’s powerful Ways and Means Committee.
Likewise, Representative Pramila Jayapal told reporters: “It would be very difficult for us to vote on a smaller bipartisan package that leaves out so many of our critical priorities.”
Given Democrats’ 220-211 majority in the House and the 50-50 split of the Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris gives the party the tie-breaking vote, dissension from a handful of members could be enough to block the measure.
Republicans on Tuesday were embracing the proposal after a briefing by negotiators during a party lunch.
“I’m very optimistic about at least 10 Republicans and probably … more,” said Senator Mitt Romney, one of the 10 moderates who negotiated the proposal.
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said the bipartisan agreement was “lacking” both in terms of the size of the package and the fact it will not raise taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. Under Biden’s original proposal, those tax hikes would pay for infrastructure projects.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has floated the idea of a two-step solution, in which a second wave of spending is passed through “reconciliation,” which circumvents the Senate rule requiring 60 votes to advance most legislation.
Doing that would require all 48 Democratic senators and the two independents who caucus with them to support the move, and two Democrats – moderates Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema – have been noncommittal when asked if they would support a reconciliation bill.
“We’re looking at everything,” Manchin told reporters.
Some Democrats voiced concerns that maneuver could fail.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a great fervor for a bipartisan bill unless we’re guaranteed that we’re going to have a big bill,” said Senator Bob Casey.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most prominent House progressives, voiced similar concerns.
“I think that the certainty of that second piece is going to determine a lot on our stances on the bipartisan piece,” she said.
White House officials told lawmakers on Tuesday that they were willing to pursue a bipartisan deal for a week or 10 days more, House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth said, amid calls from progressive lawmakers to call off bipartisan talks.
“We’re assuming right now that everything will be done by reconciliation,” he said. “That doesn’t preclude a bipartisan agreement. If one happens, we just take that part out of the instructions. But right now we’re assuming everything will be in it.”
(Reporting by Makini Brice and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)