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SALT LAKE CITY — After President Joe Biden announced Thursday "we have a deal" and gave a bipartisan group of senators the thumbs up on a massive, $579 billion infrastructure spending plan, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, applauded the president for showing "Republicans and Democrats can work together."
"I believe that he recognizes that it's important that we work in a bipartisan basis, and he recognizes the significance of communicating in our country and, frankly, around the world that America works," Romney said on a call with reporters Thursday afternoon.
Romney pointed to Biden's inaugural pledge to work in a more bipartisan fashion, "and this shows, in fact, the president was able to work on a bipartisan basis."
Romney was part of an eight-member group of Republican and Democratic senators that pitched the infrastructure spending plan, which would add $579 billion in new spending to total $973 billion over five years, or $1.2 trillion over eight years. Biden originally sought about $2 trillion.
Biden announced the deal during a surprise appearance in front of the cameras after an agreement was reached at the White House. The plan, with rare bipartisan backing, could open the door to the president's more sweeping $4 trillion proposals later on, the Associated Press reported.
Not everyone got what they wanted, Biden said. Other White House priorities — what Biden has called "human infrastructure," including family plans and child care tax credits — would be addressed separately in a congressional budget process known as reconciliation, in which Democrats wouldn't need Republican support.
"This reminds me of the days we used to get an awful lot done in the U.S. Congress," Biden said. "We actually worked (together). We've got a bipartisan deal. Bipartisan deals mean compromise."
The deal was reached amid months of partisan rancor, yet Biden, who began his administration with a pledge for bipartisanship, has insisted a compromise could be reached despite skepticism from many within his own party.
The group of senators was led by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Democrat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
To strike the deal, Romney told reporters, Republicans did have to concede to some items on Biden's wish list, including $66 billion for rail, which Romney said was a "high priority" for Biden, who has a long history of supporting the railroad that has earned him the nickname "Amtrak Joe."
"The Republican group did not want to expand Amtrak at all and wanted to reduce the number even more," Romney said. He noted Biden had originally sought $82 billion for rail, but Republicans were able to negotiate that down to $66 billion. "But we didn't get it down as much as we would have liked."
Romney also said Biden originally wanted more to fund transit infrastructure, but Republicans settled on $42 billion — still more than the GOP group members wanted. That's the nature of negotiation, Romney said.
The interesting thing is, if you work on a bipartisan basis, there's the prospect of actually getting something to become law ... If you want to get something to actually happen, you have to work on a bipartisan basis, and that's what our group does.
–Sen. Mitt Romney
"I think that there are a lot more of things that we got than things that we had to give up," Romney said. "But there's no question that Democrats got a number of things that they wanted that were not high on our priority list."
By and large, Romney said, everyone agreed "this is good policy."
"This is a good investment," he said. "Our infrastructure needs help. You know, again, we've had president after president that wanted infrastructure. President Trump proposed $2 trillion in infrastructure spending. And that never was able to get done. And this goes a long way. It's not as much as he wanted, but it goes a long way to upgrading our infrastructure."
Romney said infrastructure is "a topic ideal for bipartisan work because we both recognize the need to improve our infrastructure."
Romney hinted the bipartisan group of senators, while they consider the infrastructure plan "a great accomplishment," expects to turn its sights on a new challenge. He said he and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, may look next to a proposal to raise the minimum wage.
"We're going to keep working," he said. "The interesting thing is, if you work on a bipartisan basis, there's the prospect of actually getting something to become law ... If you want to get something to actually happen, you have to work on a bipartisan basis, and that's what our group does."
The group of senators previously struggled over how to pay for the plan, but Romney said they've proposed a number of funding sources they're confident will work.
"We found ways to pay for it," Romney told reporters. "We're not raising any taxes, and we're not adding to the deficit. So we have not only a spending program but a funding program that balance and do not raise taxes."
The bipartisan group has proposed a list of new funding sources, including repurposing unused money that's already been allocated for COVID-19 relief, Romney said.
"So whether it's the plan in January or the plans back in 2020, it was $120 billion of funds that were planning on going out with those programs that we instead move to this area," Romney said.
Romney also said the group is proposing funds collected by ramped up enforcement of unemployment insurance fraud — an issue he said has cost the federal government an estimated $80 billion.
"We're seeing numbers that suggest that there was massive fraud with regard to unemployment insurance, and we're looking for recouping a good deal of that money through investment in additional agents in the Justice Department to go after people," Romney said.
The senators have also proposed other financing sources, including reducing the IRS tax cap, redirecting unused employment insurance relief funds, allowing states to sell or purchase unused toll credits for infrastructure, extending expiring customs user fees, reinstating Superfund fees for chemicals, using 5G spectrum auction proceeds, extending the mandatory sequester and using funds from strategic petroleum reserve sales.
The senators also proposed state and local investment in broadband infrastructure, and using funds from public-private partnerships, private activity bonds, direct pay bonds and asset recycling for infrastructure investment.
The five-year infrastructure spending plan includes $312 billion for transportation and $266 billion for other infrastructure. Here's a breakdown of how the new money would be spent, according to Romney's office:
- $109 billion for roads, bridges, major projects
- $11 billion for safety
- $49 billion for public transit
- $66 billion for passenger and freight rail
- $7.5 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure
- $7.5 billion for electric buses and transit
- $1 billion for "reconnecting communities"
- $25 billion for airports
- $16 billion for ports and waterways
- $20 billion for infrastructure financing
- $55 billion for water infrastructure
- $65 billion for broadband
- $21 billion for environmental remediation
- $73 billion for power infrastructure, including grid authority
- $5 billion for western water storage
- $47 billion for "resilience," or prevention and response to emergencies including wildfires
Contributing: Associated Press