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Democrats Will Learn Soon If GOP Is Serious About Infrastructure, Sen. Coons Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Could Democrats and Republicans agree on a plan for infrastructure? President Biden asked Congress for trillions of dollars to rebuild roads and bridges, along with a lot of things like housing, electric vehicle charging stations, home care, even more. Senate Republicans have attacked that bill for covering more than traditional infrastructure but have also offered a smaller version of the plan. Among those working with Republicans is a key Biden ally, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. Senator, welcome back.

CHRIS COONS: Thanks. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Are Republicans serious about making an agreement with you?

COONS: I think we'll find out today because there's been a series of back-and-forth negotiations and proposals. Today, Senators Capito of West Virginia, Wicker of Mississippi are going to unveil their trillion-dollar counteroffer to the last negotiating session they held with President Biden. I remain hopeful that we can come together around significant investments in hard infrastructure - in bridges and tunnels and airports and ports - in revitalizing the things that help us move people and products and make our country more competitive.

I'll remind you, last month we actually passed a $35 billion water and wastewater infrastructure bill. Literally, today the Public Works Committee is marking up an authorizing bill that I think will go through on a bipartisan basis. And this week we are debating - and I think we'll finally pass - $120 billion bill for making our country more competitive with manufacturing and innovation.

INSKEEP: Senator, I'm...

COONS: There is progress on other fronts.

INSKEEP: Senator, I'm listening closely to what you're saying there. And we'll just remind people - the president asked for a couple billion dollars in infrastructure. You said they're coming back with something that may be more like a trillion, and you are optimistic there can be an agreement on what sounds to me like traditional infrastructure, like roads and bridges. Do you think that's going to be the shape of this? Some of the other, more creative parts of this bill will go out?

COONS: Yes, Steve. I think we could do this in two parts. President Biden's American Jobs Plan asks for $2.3 trillion in investment in a very broad range of needed investments in our country. Republicans are negotiating around a trillion dollars over eight years in more traditional hard infrastructure. We could pass that on a bipartisan basis and then later pass much of the rest of the Biden proposals of the Democrats' agenda with only Democrats through something called reconciliation and still accomplish most of President Biden's agenda, if not all of it.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should clarify that for people - there are certain provisions where, with just 51 votes, you can get some very large legislation through if it has to do with budgeting. You have a chance to do that one more time this year?

COONS: We do.

INSKEEP: So let's talk about the financing for this because, of course, the president wants to finance some of his plans by raising some tax rates - raising the corporate tax rate, raising the individual tax rate for taxpayers over $400,000. If I'm not mistaken, Mitch McConnell has said, we are completely uninterested in that.

COONS: Steve, that's right. The critical issue here isn't whether our country needs infrastructure investment. It isn't whether we all agree that we should do this; it's how to pay for it. Democrats would like to raise rates on big corporations and the wealthiest individuals. Republicans would like to impose more user fees, like gas taxes, for example, that would hit average working people. President Biden said in his campaign - and he's holding firm to this line - that he won't raise taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year. And that's a lot of what's been really critical to this back-and-forth is, OK, how do we pay for it?

Last year, we passed on a bipartisan basis $4 trillion in pandemic relief and recovery. I think in the end, a lot of this infrastructure bill will use some of the previously appropriated funds that went to states, and some of it will just not be paid for if we want to get it done on a bipartisan basis because we so sharply disagree about who should be paying to help grow our economy and invest in our country.

INSKEEP: So you'd borrow money and use some money that was appropriated for other things or authorized for other things. That's how you would do this.

COONS: That may be the way we come to an agreement on this. Democrats would prefer to close some of the huge tax loopholes that were opened by a bill passed under President Trump with Republican votes only. Republicans would prefer to do this by raising things that would impose more costs on millions of average people, even as we are coming out of this pandemic. It's a simple disagreement, but that's largely why we haven't invested in new infrastructure on a big scale in the whole decade at least that I've been in the Senate. So coming to a compromise is the only way forward here.

INSKEEP: Senator Coons, as you probably know very well, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, was quoted the other day saying, quote, "100% of my focus is on stopping this new administration," which he said is, quote, "trying to turn America into a socialist country." Quotes get taken out of context, so I actually went back and watched the video. Mitch McConnell said that. Do you believe the person who said that is nevertheless willing to let some members of his caucus come across to vote with you on a big infrastructure bill?

COONS: Well, that was certainly a disheartening quote and one that made many Democrats say, this is the same Mitch McConnell who led the Senate when Barack Obama was president and blocked virtually everything for years. We'll have to see. President Biden continues to engage directly with senators. And I think this week, today and possibly over the next two weeks at the latest, we'll see whether it's possible to move anything with Republican support. If it's not, I'm hopeful the entire Democratic caucus will support President Biden's agenda and moving forward,

INSKEEP: Which could mean going even more through reconciliation or even ending the filibuster.

COONS: Yes, both of those may end up being on the table if we can't get progress with Republicans. I remain hopeful today. You'll see us vote on things that move forward, this big - on making our country more competitive with China. It's robust. It's bipartisan. It shows we can make progress.

INSKEEP: Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. Thanks.

COONS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.