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This Week Is A Proof Point On Infrastructure Spending, Sen. Coons Says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For more on the nature and future of bipartisanship in Washington, we are joined by Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. Senator, thanks for being with us this morning.

CHRIS COONS: Always good to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: I want to ask some big-picture questions about how you see bipartisanship in Congress. But first, just the nuts and bolts - the voting rights bill. I mean, Republicans blocked this, didn't even allow debate on it. The filibuster, eliminating it, seems to be the Democrats' only path forward. What's your take in this moment about the future of this legislation?

COONS: Well, I think, Rachel, it was important yesterday that all 50 Democrats voted to proceed to a debate on the floor about voting rights. Senator Manchin had long been a holdout. After weeks of debate within our caucus, we got to a point where every Democrat agreed on moving forward with this bill, and that created a stark contrast between all 50 Republicans voting against, all 50 Democrats voting in favor. There's still plenty of fight to be had at the state level, and we're going to back up and try again. There's a few members of our caucus who are insisting on trying to reach out to Republicans to see if, after Joe Manchin's sort of compromise proposals were put on the table, there isn't some way forward.

But as the reporter who was just on made clear, there are two members of the caucus who are publicly opposed to eliminating the filibuster. This week, there's also urgent work moving forward on bipartisanship relating to infrastructure. There's also a group working on immigration reform and another group on policing reform. I think if all of these come to the same end as the efforts around voting rights, where it's blocked 50-50, that'll sharpen the focus on the filibuster.

MARTIN: Do you still oppose getting rid of the filibuster? You've said so in the past that this was an important legislative tool that ensures bipartisanship.

COONS: My goal is to make sure that President Biden's objectives - that his agenda moves forward. And my hope is that we will see some breakthroughs here on infrastructure, policing reform and immigration. But I've also said I won't stand by this entire Congress and watch President Biden's agenda blocked, so I think this is an important moment of decision for Republicans. They know that we're on the verge of ending the filibuster, and I think that is partly moving some of the Republicans who are actively working with us on infrastructure, immigration, policing reform.

MARTIN: In Asma Khalid's report just now, I mean, there were a couple of really interesting bits of tape. She interviewed Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Votes Matter (ph), a progressive activist who echoes what several - what many on the progressive left are saying, that holding bipartisanship up as a value is no longer appropriate. It's no - it's something that shouldn't be done anymore. And they point to January 6 and the number of Republicans who supported the big lie about the election and that entertaining that at all, in the spirit of bipartisanship, is damaging and entertaining Republican positions when they are blocking things like sweeping voting rights reform is also dangerous. What do you make of that?

COONS: Well, Rachel, we have to strike a balance. One of the things that's important to remember is that if we do get rid of the legislative filibuster, the next time Republicans control the White House, the Senate and the House, they can quickly move through bills that would fundamentally alter a wide range of things, from environmental protections to labor rights to reproductive rights. The last time they controlled all three was just a few years ago, in the first two years of the Trump administration. They respected the filibuster and didn't move those broad and sweeping changes towards a more conservative country. They instead used their power to win over - to take, I would say - a majority of the Supreme Court, illegitimately, in my view. Unfortunately, that's a more lasting conservative now force in our country.

So there is a heated debate in our caucus about this. Rachel, this week is going to be a proof point about whether we can come to a bipartisan agreement on $579 billion in new infrastructure spending over the next five years. The total package being discussed would be over a trillion dollars. And that would create a lot of high-paying, high-skilled jobs. It would modernize our electric grid, broadband access, roads, bridges, tunnels, highways. And there is a...

MARTIN: How are you going to get that through, though, Senator?

COONS: I'm sorry?

MARTIN: How are you going to get that through? The talks between President Biden and Shelley Moore Capito fell apart. I understand there are new bipartisan talks, but what makes these any different? Where's the new compromise going to come from?

COONS: Two big differences - last Thursday, we had 11 Republicans publicly endorse this framework, and it is bigger. It is a larger amount of spending than Senator Capito's proposal ever put on the table. It adds a significant amount of money, $66 billion, for rail and transit, something personally important to me and to President Biden, as folks who have long commuted on Amtrak. And it's added significant additional investments in areas like broadband and ports and airports. It's up to the number that President Biden was looking for. The disagreements now are just over exactly how to pay for it, and I remain optimistic we'll close that gap this week.

MARTIN: Although that is a big, big question - how to pay for it all. We will talk about that another time. Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. We always appreciate you coming on, Senator. Thank you so much.

COONS: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.