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Republicans Meet Biden's Infrastructure Plan With Skepticism

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to turn our attention back now to that meeting President Biden had with a bipartisan group of lawmakers earlier today. The goal was to discuss his $2 trillion infrastructure plan with the people who are most crucial to getting it passed. Republican Congressman Garret Graves of Louisiana was there. He's a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and he joins us now.

Welcome.

GARRET GRAVES: Hey. Thank you; appreciate the opportunity to join you.

CHANG: Well, thank you for joining us. So President Biden says he is willing to negotiate on this infrastructure plan. I'm curious. Is that the sense you got today at the meeting?

GRAVES: Well, look; he came straight out of the gates uttering those words that he was open to negotiation, open to compromise, wanted to hear our thoughts on scope, size, definition of infrastructure - things along all those lines. So certainly, the words were the words that we wanted to hear in that regard. I think that to find out how much is truly behind that, we're going to have to see how the rest of the week goes. The president offered to send some of his team to our office as early as tomorrow to have follow-up discussions about specific areas of consensus and concern. And so we did follow up on that offer and asked them to come over tomorrow to start talking more details.

CHANG: OK, all right. That all sounds good. I'm wondering, what did you think were the biggest takeaways, at least for you, from the meeting today?

GRAVES: Well, first of all, I'll say it again. It was encouraging to hear the president talk about his openness to negotiation or compromise. There's been a long bipartisan history for compromise or bipartisan support for infrastructure. Every community in America has roads and bridges that need investment.

CHANG: Sure.

GRAVES: And so hearing, you know, kind of the basis of the discussion on that, I think, was encouraging. Once we started getting into some of the pay-fors in regard to increasing taxes on companies and maybe even middle class, talking about some of the scope of infrastructure, it got a little concerning because, I think, the federal government is doing a poor job of the infrastructure programs they have now. So let's make sure that we're fixing them and not throwing good money on top of bad.

CHANG: OK. Well, let me ask you this. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that Republicans are disinclined to support the bill in its current form. So would you say that Republicans are negotiating in good faith right now?

GRAVES: Well, let's keep in mind that a negotiation always takes at least two sides. The president, the White House, has - they've thrown their proposal out there. That can be a starting point. But I don't think that we should be in a scenario where it's, you know, sort of my way or the highway for anyone, that we have a - I can't say this enough. You can look back for probably four decades, well before I was here, and everyone has infrastructure needs. And so there is strong bipartisan support, so I think that them putting a proposal out is a good starting point. I think them demonstrating that they're willing to negotiate or move, as the president said in the meeting today, is a good start. The president did convey that one of his top objectives was trying to sort of claim or reclaim America's leadership role in the 21st century. And certainly, that's something we share. He wants to help achieve it through infrastructure, but we've got to make sure that we're not robbing ourselves at the same time of that objective by overtaxing Americans and companies.

CHANG: OK. Well, tell me what you are willing to negotiate on. Republicans have said that they don't want to see the corporate tax increase. Would you be willing to accept, say, a smaller tax increase to help fund this proposal? Is that negotiable?

GRAVES: Well, so if you look back on how we funded infrastructure in America, things like roads and bridges, if you look at how we funded water and wastewater, it's through user fees. That's what really makes sense. So I think first looking at that mechanism...

CHANG: Do you think you can raise enough funds through user fees to fund this $2 trillion proposal?

GRAVES: If we do a - well, so you've mentioned the $2 trillion twice now. I think something that's really important for us to do is - you can't just take a round number and say, we're going to do 2 trillion. What is the need? We've got to do a better job assessing the need, a better job delivering projects if right now it's taking us 10 or 15 years just to get projects evaluated for construction. The projects that are under construction today are often ideas from the '80s and '90s. Let's do a better job on project development, delivery, efficiency of these - of the project delivery mechanism. Let's determine what the federal government's obligations are in regard to infrastructure scope in this country. Do we need to be doing every drinking water system in America? Is that really the federal government's responsibility? So we've got to take steps through - to actually get to what the dollar figure is. Then we can look at how we actually achieve those figures.

CHANG: That is Republican Congressman Garret Graves of Louisiana. Thank you very much for joining us.

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