“She’s been an honest broker, I’d say that. That’s the greatest compliment around here. She’s kept her word, she’s committed to something,” Portman said in an interview. He acknowledged “differences of opinion,” adding: “She would want to spend more … I would want to spend less. We have to find a way to get to the middle.”
The group holed up for hours on Tuesday night after the Capito talks collapsed. Sinema ordered pizza and forced the group to cast their floor votes together before immediately returning to the basement hideaway where they were chatting to keep talks efficient. They had no time to waste.
Sinema’s talks are operating on an accelerated timeline, with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democratic leaders impatient to make progress in the coming weeks before pursuing a unilateral approach that’s been resisted by Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). For Biden, the key question is whether he will bend on asking for changes to GOP tax cuts or the overall scope of the bill after yielding nearly $1 trillion to Capito — but still asking for $1 trillion in new spending.
She’s a 44-year-old Senate newcomer, but Sinema has spent her first two-and-a-half years in office forging close relationships with Republicans that rival Manchin’s bipartisan entreaties. And the next few days will test whether that can translate to 60 votes for a big bill that the president will sign.
In a statement for this story, Sinema acknowledged that forging an agreement, with her leadership, between Biden and at least 10 Republicans will be “difficult” but “would help show everyday Americans that we can work together to modernize and make our infrastructure resilient, and expand economic opportunities.”
On Wednesday, deal-seeking Republicans gathered at lunchtime to present their fluid plans for spending several hundred billion dollars above current levels on infrastructure to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican said only that he’s in “listening mode” on Wednesday, a shift from his explicit blessing of Capito’s negotiations with Biden.
Sinema can’t count on Capito’s help at this point. The West Virginia Republican said in an interview she’s stopped attending the bipartisan group of 20-senator meetings she had joined earlier this year and isn’t getting involved in Sinema and Portman’s cohort.
She did offer some advice: Make sure you actually agree on what the definition of infrastructure is and how you would pay for it. Those tips seem basic enough, but disagreement on those terms brought down Capito’s negotiations with Biden before the duo ever got close to a deal.
“I’m really not participating in the other group … I can’t negotiate on two tracks,” Capito said in an interview. “They’re working their own tracks. I wish them luck. Just gotta make sure what the president tells you is what matches the reality of what they really want.”
Sinema has had two telephone conversations on infrastructure with Biden: one Tuesday in the wake of the collapse of the Capito-Biden talks and an in-person meeting in May centered on the issue. She’s also spoken to top White House aides including legislative director Louisa Terrell, Biden counselor Steve Ricchetti and chief of staff Ron Klain recently about the issue. But she purposely didn’t upstage Capito, a close friend and ally, by keeping the talks with Portman low-key and on the back burner.
The Sinema-Portman group is also working with a bipartisan House group called the Problem Solvers Caucus, made up of 58 members divided evenly on party lines who helped the bipartisan Senate group resuscitate Covid relief talks at the end of former President Donald Trump’s administration. Since then, they’ve convened every other week at Manchin’s bipartisan lunch meeting.
When the Problem Solvers Caucus released its version of an infrastructure bill on Wednesday, some of its members privately said it…