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Can Congress And The White House Reach A Bipartisan Deal On Infrastructure?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today is the White House-imposed deadline to reach a bipartisan deal on infrastructure. So how likely is that to happen? President Biden is scheduled to meet again with West Virginia Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito to see if both sides can get closer to an agreement. With us now, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. He is the chair of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Senator, thanks for being here.

BEN CARDIN: Rachel, it's good to be with you. Thank you.

MARTIN: Are we going to see a deal today?

CARDIN: No, I don't think we'll see a deal today, but I think the discussions are ongoing. Look; this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to really modernize our infrastructure. It's long overdue. We need to be bold. We need to do what's necessary so America can be competitive and create the jobs for the future. So we're going to have to be bold, and we're going to need a major bill enacted. But we're going to continue to negotiate and do as much as we can on a bipartisan basis.

MARTIN: Would you support passing this bill, even if it ends up with no Republican votes?

CARDIN: Well, I'm hopeful that - first of all, in the transportation infrastructure, we had a unanimous vote in the Environment and Public Works Committee in the Senate. So I am optimistic there is going to be bipartisan support for infrastructure improvement. Whether it'll be enough or not, whether we have to pursue additional means - we'll wait to see.

MARTIN: Although the stakes are high for bipartisan support, right? Because you have the slimmest of majorities in the Senate. Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia says he won't support it if it's along party lines. So what are some of the concessions that your party and President Biden would be willing to make to get to that point?

CARDIN: Well, we've already seen some concessions being made. It's the type of infrastructure, the size of the infrastructure, how it's paid for, these are all areas where we are not - we're wide apart. We haven't reached an agreement yet. But I'm hopeful that we'll be able to find a bridge to get us together. Clearly, we need to be bold, and we need to find common ground. And I - the president's working very hard personally on this. He's trying to bring us together. There are senators on both sides of the aisle trying to bring us together. We're going to see how far we can get on a bipartisan basis. Whether it'll be enough, it's still too early to tell. But it'll be on the size, the type of infrastructure and how it's paid for.

MARTIN: What's nonnegotiable?

CARDIN: I think getting a major bill done is nonnegotiable. We - this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We really need to build back better. That means America needs to be more competitive. I think each of us know in our own communities we have infrastructure that is in desperate need of modernization...

MARTIN: Can I...

CARDIN: ...Whether it's roads, bridges or transit systems or our broadband or - the list goes on and on.

MARTIN: Understood. Can I push you to be a little more specific? Take child care, for example - is that something you'd be willing to give on?

CARDIN: Well, when you're building back better, we have to have affordable child care and places that our children are safe to be in. So I think we can't negotiate our children's safety, so we need to have affordable, safe child care.

MARTIN: Is there a version of this bill that'll satisfy Democrats without alienating - which will satisfy Republicans, rather, without alienating the progressive wing of your own party?

CARDIN: Oh, absolutely. So we did that on transportation in the size and scope of a transportation bill. The difference between the Republicans, the Democrats are not very great. I think we can bridge that issue. Broadband is an area where there's clear bipartisan support. So I think there are areas that are easier than others. Others are going to be more challenging, and we're going to have to find a way forward. And hopefully, we can convince enough Republicans to join us or find alternative ways to get that done.

MARTIN: In our moments remaining, I want to pivot for a moment, if I could, senator. The New York Times got its hands on a study of the 2020 election done by three prominent Democratic advocacy groups. It concludes that your party didn't do nearly as well as they had hoped with certain groups of the population, especially Hispanics, because there was not a cohesive message about the economy, that the party assumed that being an alternative to Trump was enough. Do you think that's true?

CARDIN: I think that our nation is divided. I think we need to respond to the needs of the working middle class, and we need to do that more effectively than we've done in the past. The Democratic Party needs to have a clearer message, and I think you see that with President Biden with Build Back Better. We saw it with the Rescue Plan that took half our children out of poverty, that provided the way to get through COVID-19. You're seeing that now on the infrastructure bill, a bold proposal to modernize our country. And you'll see it on the family plan to deal with affordable child care and affordable higher education. So, yes, I think we did not do as well in the last elections because we did not have a strong enough program for the middle class.

MARTIN: Democratic Senator Ben Cardin from Maryland. We appreciate you taking the time this morning. Thank you.

CARDIN: Rachel, it's good to be with you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.