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Sen. Warner Navigates Bipartisan Talks For Infrastructure And Spending Bills

NOEL KING, HOST:

Speaking of are we there yet, the Senate will try to move forward this week with two big infrastructure proposals. They're a top priority for the Biden administration. And the man in the middle of both negotiations is Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia. Here's a profile from NPR's Claudia Grisales.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Senator Mark Warner is working on an infrastructure deal between Democrats and Republicans, and he jokes he's literally feeling the pain.

MARK WARNER: (Laughter) You've seen me with my neck - I think I pulled it, but I think it's maybe a little bit increased with stress.

GRISALES: The moderate Virginia senator is navigating bipartisan talks for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure proposal, and he's also working with members of his own party on a $3.5 trillion spending bill. The two groups are racing against time as Republicans sound the alarm that inflation could make a broader package for Democrats just too costly. Here's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Another multitrillion-dollar reckless taxing and spending spree, believe me, is the last thing American families need.

GRISALES: It's left Warner using every extra minute to negotiate a bipartisan agreement, including when NPR traveled with him to an event in rural southwest Virginia. Warner worked the phones to squeeze in more negotiation time before joining Governor Ralph Northam in Abingdon, Va., to announce a $700 million broadband initiative.

(APPLAUSE)

GRISALES: The project was created thanks to a pandemic relief bill approved by Congress earlier this year.

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WARNER: I'm part of every bipartisan gang there is, and we're working on a major infrastructure package right now.

GRISALES: And Warner hopes the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes another $65 billion in federal money for broadband, could connect more rural areas across the country.

DEBBIE STEFFEY: We don't have it. We have no choice. They refused.

TONY STEFFEY: We don't even have email or nothing.

GRISALES: That's retiree couple Debbie and Tony Steffey. They're on a fixed income and will need to pay $10,000 to get a fiber line to their Cleveland, Va., home.

T STEFFEY: I want people to know how they act, we're treated.

D STEFFEY: They're picking and choosing who they want to make service to.

GRISALES: After the event on Friday, Warner told NPR the Steffeys are one of many reasons to keep hope alive for infrastructure. But he admits the talks leave his head spinning sometimes.

WARNER: In one group - you know, how can we get my friends to go to a slightly higher number? In the reconciliation negotiation, I'm trying to get folks to go a little lower, so I have to decide which hat I'm wearing.

GRISALES: He will be wearing both hats this week as he continues to shuffle between the groups and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer puts pressure on the Senate to move both bills ahead.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: The time has come to make progress, and we will.

GRISALES: Warner says it will be a stretch if the bipartisan group can hit the mark in the coming days. The former tech executive touts his background as a businessman as an asset during negotiations. One of the biggest issues in both proposals is how to pay for them.

WARNER: But how can we do this in a way that's tangible and real and doesn't break the bank?

GRISALES: Warner has not always been on the same page as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the more liberal independent budget chair, but he says now is the time for his party to back a package of this size.

WARNER: I'm not sure that I would have been ready for this much change other than coming out of this enormously challenging last 16 months.

GRISALES: Both infrastructure packages have a ways to go before reaching the president's desk, so Warner will likely keep playing the middleman for weeks and maybe months to come.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TINGVALL TRIO'S "DANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.