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Sen. Angus King On Wins And Losses Of The Bipartisanship Infrastructure Deal

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A bipartisan infrastructure deal has been reached. Speaking at the White House today, President Biden says it's an important step for the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's been a very long time since the last time our country was able to strike a major bipartisan deal on American infrastructure, which is so badly needed, I might add. We've devoted far too much energy to competing with one another and not nearly enough energy competing with the rest of the world.

CHANG: A working group of senators helped hammer out this $1.2 trillion deal, and among them is Senator Angus King, independent from Maine. Welcome back to the program, Senator.

ANGUS KING: Ailsa, always a pleasure. Nice to be with you.

CHANG: Nice to have you. So this package - I mean, it's been in the works for months. Can you just very briefly take us through some of the back-and-forth that finally allowed this working group to agree across party lines on just a few things? What did it? What ultimately brought you guys together?

KING: Well, it started with the president making a really large proposal, as you know, which involved sort of what would I call hard infrastructure and a number of other issues. The Republicans rejected that out of hand. And then a series of negotiations began between the president, the White House and a group of Republicans led by Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. Ultimately, a couple of weeks ago, that broke down, and the group that came together last winter that negotiated the last piece of the CARES Act of the pandemic funding got back together. You know, we got the band back together and have worked out a deal. And today the White House agreed. Now, it's not done.

CHANG: Right.

KING: We've got to sell it to 80 other senators and 435 House members. But this is a big step forward, as the president said. This is the - this is one of the biggest infrastructure investments in American history, and it's the first one really serious new infrastructure investment in a generation.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about that huge investment. I mean, it's going to cost a trillion dollars over eight years, but no new taxes for anyone. So where exactly is the money coming from?

KING: Well, there are a bunch of areas, and one of them is something that I've been talking about for some time. It's the so-called tax gap. And what that is is people who owe taxes that don't pay them, particularly at the higher end. The IRS commissioner estimated that between half a trillion and a trillion dollars a year is money that's owed and not paid. And so that was one of the things the negotiators agreed to - was to - you know, let's have tax cheats pay what they're supposed to pay. If they don't pay, then the rest of us have to, or our kids have to pay it if we borrow. So that's one of the pieces. As you know, there's been a lot of states that haven't taken the...

CHANG: Unemployment insurance.

KING: ...Extended unemployment benefits.

CHANG: Right.

KING: So there's money there. There's some repurposed unused relief fund from the 2020 CARES Act. The states are going to be expected to pay part of the broadband investment, customs fees, Superfund fees, Strategic Petroleum Reserve. It's a grab bag of pay-fors.

CHANG: Right.

KING: But, Ailsa, the key is it's paid for. So unlike a lot of the spending that is done down here...

CHANG: Right.

KING: ...This isn't being borrowed from the next generation.

CHANG: But let me ask you about something that's not in this bill. I mean, what do you say to other senators like yourself who wanted to see climate change measures in this package? What kind of guarantee do you have that a future bill focused on climate change measures will ever pass the Senate or Congress if it's not tied to a package like this?

KING: Well, but there are pieces in there. For example, there's $7.5 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure; electric buses and transit, another 7.5 billion. So there's...

CHANG: Right. But the ambitions were pared down on the climate change front...

KING: Yeah.

CHANG: ...For sure.

KING: It's pared down. But that's why it's called a compromise. That's why we got to a bipartisan deal. My favorite philosopher, Mick Jagger, once said, you can't always get what you want. And if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need. And hopefully this package has what we need.

CHANG: Now, let's talk about what you will need down the road, if I may. President Biden said today - just to talk about passing this deal, he doesn't want to pass it. He doesn't want to sign it unless it's linked to the broader budget package that Democrats are putting together. But there are still major differences inside the Democratic Party about how big that package should be, how to pay for it. So does tying those two bills together make this a much heavier lift?

KING: Well, that makes it a little more complicated for sure, and I think that's why I said at the beginning, you know, you don't do a victory lap around here until it's signed and the president has it on his desk. But I got to say, before we leave, the biggest deal in this for me is broadband. That's the most transformational infrastructure change that we can possibly do for this country.

CHANG: OK.

KING: It's huge for states like Maine that have rural areas. That's a big deal. This is something that's very positive for the country.

CHANG: We will have to leave it there. That is Senator Angus King, independent from Maine. Thank you.

KING: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.