Biden Holds Bipartisan Infrastructure Talks At White House : The NPR Politics Podcast Members of the House and Senate, all former governors and mayors, attended a meeting at the White House today to talk infrastructure priorities with the president. A second infrastructure plan, in addition to the current $2 trillion plan under consideration, will focus on paid leave and childcare issues.

This episode: White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, and congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

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Biden Holds Bipartisan Infrastructure Talks At White House

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LUCY: Hi. My name is Lucy (ph), and I just watched my clarinet professor leap over a wall solely to get coffee. (Laughter) that sounds just as weird to me as it does to you. I guess the semester has been hard on all of us (laughter). Anyway, this podcast was recorded at...

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It is 2:05 p.m. on Monday, April 19.

LUCY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. But I will have, hopefully, been caffeinated. Anyway, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Wow, that is an escalation (laughter) right there.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Just meeting people where they are.

RASCOE: And it's a good thing that he was able to clear that wall because that could have went really wrong.

SNELL: I was just thinking there were risks involved (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: What's on the other side of - I have so many questions.

SNELL: Yeah, I do, too.

RASCOE: The coffee, the coffee (laughter).

SNELL: But why is it on the other side of the wall? I feel like this is just the start of the story, and we need more information.

RASCOE: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

SNELL: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

RASCOE: There is a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House this morning, Kelsey, and they're supposed to be meeting with President Biden to negotiate his $2 trillion infrastructure bill. Kelsey, who is meeting with Biden today? And are they actually doing any negotiating?

SNELL: That second question you asked is actually, I think, really an important one. But just to kind of give you an idea of who is there, these are mostly people who are former governors and mayors. I'm thinking of - most importantly, of people like Mitt Romney, who is now the Republican senator from Utah but was the governor of Massachusetts, and John Hickenlooper, a Democrat from Colorado, who used to be governor of that state.

I think the idea here in this group of people is for the White House to try to figure out who the members of Congress are that will be able to kind of frame the stakes of what infrastructure investment means. Like, who are the people who have seen what it means to build a road or how hard it is to get a highway that goes through three counties? And what if there are potholes in one and not the other? And, oh, yeah, what about broadband?

Now, there are some other wrinkles here. So the question about negotiations is a good one because is this a meeting or is this a negotiation? - because we saw in the coronavirus drafting process when they were trying to get that big coronavirus relief bill out that there were meetings where the White House brought in Republicans. But, you know, they didn't actually negotiate. They didn't try to find any kind of middle ground. And, you know, this may just be one of those early-stage meetings where everybody's feeling out where everybody else's position is, not a true negotiation where they're actually trying to get a deal.

KURTZLEBEN: So, Kelsey, one question I have is that Biden has been talking for quite a while about wanting this to be bipartisan. And I know he had a meeting with some Republicans and Democrats last week. Do we have any sense so far at how successful he has been at this, at trying to bring more people on board?

SNELL: You know, it's complicated right now, really, because we don't really know what exact policies they're actually zeroing in on. It does, so far, seem like they are, you know, getting a lay of the land and getting a sense of what is possible because we like to talk broadly about the fact that it's challenging to get anything passed in the Senate, where there is an equal 50-50 split. And, you know, Democrats have a narrow majority in the House. We talk about those broad terms. But when it gets down to actually writing policy, it's about winning individual votes, individual people, creating coalitions of people who can get together for passage. And that is a lot more difficult than it may seem on the surface.

RASCOE: So is this - these meetings and potentially negotiations - is it an act of futility?

SNELL: (Laughter).

RASCOE: Like, is there a proposal that would be acceptable to the White House that would also get the support of 10 Republican senators? I mean, as you said, they're - you're looking at individual lawmakers for this.

SNELL: Right. There had been some discussions - both Democrats and Republicans - about this idea of breaking down infrastructure to a core group of policies that could pass with bipartisan support and then leaving everything else for Democrats to pass through budget reconciliation, which we're getting pretty familiar with at this point because that's how they passed that $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill. Now, that's something that John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, has talked about, and Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware - the idea that you split this apart, get bipartisanship around something - you know, maybe $800 billion - and then leave everything else to just pass with Democratic support. But that makes a whole lot of assumptions about the unanimity of Democrats that I don't think we can really make yet.

KURTZLEBEN: And to just give our listeners a quick primer into what that breakdown would even look like, this total bill - like you said, Ayesha - is just a bit over $2 trillion, about $2.25 trillion. And the idea that some Republicans have floated is breaking off the, quote unquote, "physical infrastructure" part of this, the more traditional definition of infrastructure. You know, the idea of roads and bridges, transit, that sort of thing, also potentially broadband Internet, those sorts of things, potentially being a bipartisan first-stab package. That would be a bit less than half the size of the full American Jobs Plan infrastructure package Biden is pitching. And then there are other parts of this package that plenty of Republicans have said or hinted are nonstarters for them. For example, building or improving child care centers or money for elder care and long-term disability care, that sort of thing - those are some things that some Republicans have balked at.

RASCOE: But Danielle, what you're talking about - and what you and Kelsey are talking about, it almost sounds like a lot of legislating. Like, you would have to pass a lot of bills (laughter) to get - so you would pass a smaller bill and then pass bigger bills. And I - the Congress that I have become familiar with has not done a lot of legislating. So wouldn't it be a concern...

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

RASCOE: ...To progressives that if you passed a smaller thing, how do you know that this other thing is even going to get done?

KURTZLEBEN: I think that's a fair point. And now listen - from what I understand and what I have seen and heard progressives say, they - I have not - I have yet to hear the most progressive, most liberal members of the House and Senate say, you know, I won't vote for a standalone bill. But one thing that is really important here is that progressives I've spoken to had said at first when Biden's plan came out, sort of the framework around it, they were pleasantly surprised with it. They said, you know, this was a president that, you know, quite a few of us were not backing in the presidential campaign - or if you were Bernie Sanders, he's someone you were running against. And then he puts out this bill, and some of these legislators said, wow, he included a lot of the stuff we liked. Green New Deal backers, really - several of them really liked this. So as he starts taking things away - if he does, if he does - to perhaps please more moderate Democrats or Republicans, then, yeah, I imagine you will hear them kick up some fuss.

RASCOE: All right. Well, I'm sure before any of you start kicking up some fuss, let's just take a quick break, and we'll talk more about what infrastructure actually means.

And we're back. Danielle, what is infrastructure? You did a really great story on how the answer to that question really isn't straightforward, right?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, depends on who you ask. Depends on...

RASCOE: OK. OK.

KURTZLEBEN: ...How much time you have, right?

RASCOE: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. No, I mean, look, like we said a little bit earlier in this podcast, often when people talk about infrastructure, it means roads and bridges, or perhaps you can say that's the thing that the most people agree on that infrastructure is, right? There was a poll from Politico and Morning Consult just last week where they asked people, hey, what is infrastructure? And, you know, roughly 8 in 10 people said transportation, highways, seven in 10 said public schools. So OK, those things.

But then there's also this question of, well, is it more? And Democrats - some Democrats have been pushing this idea for quite a while. You will remember Elizabeth Warren talked about this at the DNC last year. She gave a whole speech about child care is infrastructure. That was one of her big messages. And she's not the only one pushing this. But this is a thing that Biden's American Jobs Plan has raised because that plan also includes, for example, money for elder care, money for other long-term care and money for child care centers, to rebuild them and to make more of them, make sure people have access because plenty of people don't. And so that has raised this very big dispute. And by the way, there is also polling on child care, paid leave, et cetera. According to that same poll, 53% of Americans said yes, child care is infrastructure, compared to 32%. So it's a thing that plenty of people can agree with, but there's still some dispute.

SNELL: I think one of the interesting things here, Danielle - and I talked to Democrats and tell me if you're hearing something similar - is that they feel like the pandemic has given them an opportunity to kind of redefine for people the terms they use to talk about the way they interact with their daily lives and that calling child care and elder care and all of the things that kind of interact with getting to work, they consider that part of infrastructure because it's the infrastructure of the economy. People need to have, you know, the vulnerable populations cared for in order to comfortably go and hold jobs.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Yeah. I mean, taking this expanded definition of infrastructure, the logic is this - is that roads and bridges, for example, those allow the economy to run. They are public goods that we put money into to allow the Amazon trucks to drive over them to get the stuff to your house so you can pay for Amazon's goods, for example. Well, the idea is that paid leave, child care, elder care are also part of the bedrock of what allows the economy to function. They are things that allow people - and very much particularly women - to participate in the economy. And this is an argument that's been going on around labor economics for quite a while. Women's labor force participation has stalled out. It rose for quite a while there - '70s, '80s - and then it stalled. And one big reason may be a lack of childcare for women.

RASCOE: You talked to Congresswoman Katie Porter about this very issue, right?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Yeah. I mean, she had two big issues with Biden's plans as he has laid them out. One is the way he has split it up - the American Jobs Plan, the quote unquote "infrastructure plan" we've talked about, versus the American Families Plan. That is the second part of his whole build back better economic scheme that he is putting out. That half of it is supposed to be much more about care, about child care and elder care, much more than there was in that first half, right?

One of her points is, listen; you're literally putting the part that is weighted more heavily towards women second. That - and to her, that seems as if he is not prioritizing women. Now, the White House, by the way - I asked them about this. They said, no, no, it is not a sign of how much we're prioritizing this or that. But the other big point she made is, look, infrastructure is popular. Democrats like it, Republicans like it. This is a thing that everyone always says they want. But she also had a point to make about why it is so popular versus why child care legislation, which she's a big proponent of, has not yet passed.

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KATIE PORTER: Why is that word infrastructure magic? And I think when you look behind that, you start to realize that what infrastructure actually traditionally often has been used as is as code for jobs for men.

RASCOE: Kelsey, do you have - do you know any timeline for when we might know more about this second part of this infrastructure plan?

SNELL: They've left the timing of this a little bit open. Though, as I talked to people about the timing for actually moving infrastructure in general, there is this pressure to try to get it all done before the end of the fiscal year, which is at the end - on September 30, in part because the idea is they want to be able to use budget reconciliation to wrap up any stray pieces that, you know, can't get bipartisan support, or in the event that nothing can get bipartisan support, that they can do it all with budget reconciliation. It's a situation where Democrats feel like they have to legislate. They have to legislate this year. They have to get things done. They have to make good on promises that they made in the last campaign. And they have to do it before it really gets deep into the winter when people are starting to campaign again. As much as it's painful to hear this, they're already thinking about the next election cycle, particularly for the House. So there is, you know, a little bit of a practical political reason for needing to move quickly.

RASCOE: It feels like it's always campaign season...

KURTZLEBEN: Yup (laughter).

RASCOE: ...Around this town (laughter).

SNELL: Always campaign time (laughter).

RASCOE: All right. Well, let's leave it there for now. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

SNELL: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

RASCOE: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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