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Bipartisan infrastructure deal a ‘giant step forward’ despite compromise, Sen. Tester says

A bipartisan group of senators reached an agreement on a trillion dollar infrastructure plan to invest in public works projects across the country, including $550 billion in new spending over the next five years. As it faces its first procedural vote in the Senate Wednesday, Judy Woodruff is joined by Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat who is one of the negotiators spearheading the deal.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The political gridlock around the nation's infrastructure seems to have broken.

    A bipartisan group of senators now agree on a trillion-dollar investment in public works projects. The measure includes $550 billion in new spending over the next five years. Of that, $110 billion is to improve highways, $65 billion to expand broadband access, and $47 billion to combat environmental disasters.

    Now the challenge is getting enough votes. But the Senate negotiators, including Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, sound optimistic.

  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK:

    This is also important to demonstrate that Republicans and Democrats can come together over really hard stuff, to negotiate in good faith, and to broker an agreement that is not going to work just for Republicans or for Democrats.

    It is going to work for the country. So, it has been a long effort. It will still be a long effort going forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We look at what is in the bill and next steps in these negotiations with Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana. He's a member of the bipartisan group which led the effort in securing this Senate deal.

    Senator Tester, thank you so much for joining us.

    So, tell us, what was the key that unlocked this deal, after all these weeks of trying and failing? And tell us, what did Republicans give on, what did Democrats give on? What did each side get?

  • Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT:

    Well, look, we will start with what we got. We got a lot. This is the biggest infrastructure investment in America in this country's history.

    And the jobs it's going to create, the ability for this package to be able to make us the premier economic power in the world is — can't be stated enough.

    And, look, I will tell you the negotiations went on for a lot longer than I thought they were going to have to go on, but you know how negotiations are, Judy. It's about people covering every square inch and then going back and doing it three or more times. And, then, pretty soon, they just get tired and they say, OK, we're going to do this.

    And I'll tell you, the 10 people that I worked with, the nine people on the committee and then the White House who came over, everybody, everybody, to a person, wanted to get to yes. And I think that's really the key. And that's why this happened.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I do want to ask you about the money that's in there, what it's being spent on, highways $110 billion, broadband $65 billion, other big-ticket items like public transit, passenger rail, upgrading the power grid.

    Give us something that people who are listening to this can say, oh, I get it.

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    Well, look, it's all basically traditional infrastructure.

    And I will tell you, let's take a look at the water infrastructure portion. I mean, water is literally life. And to be able to have good water in these communities is a premium, and it's going to do a lot for that.

    We just came out of a pandemic, where we have seen broadband being necessary for our society, yet there's too many people that are unserved or underserved. This is going to help bring our broadband up to a point where a state like Montana and other rural states throughout this country, and in urban areas, too, as far as that go, are going to have good access to broadband for telehealth and distance learning and having businesses be able to grow their businesses and create opportunity there over the Internet.

    So, and you can go down the list, whether it's rails, critically important, making sure we're doing what we can do to have good passenger service transit, the same thing. Everybody will feel the difference that this bill makes once we get it passed and implemented.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were mentioning water infrastructure.

    And we know that Democratic Senator Tom Carper, your colleague from the state of Delaware, is saying he's unhappy. He doesn't think there's the right amount of money in here for replacing lead pipes and other clean water needs.

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    There's a ton of money in here for water infrastructure.

    And this bill may not fix every water problem in this country, but it will take a giant step forward to fix a lot of water problems in this country. And I think that, if you're looking for perfection in this bill, you will never find it. The truth is, this is a bipartisan, negotiated bill where everybody gives a little and everybody gets a lot.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are you confident that you're also fully paying for all of this?

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    Yes. Well, no tax increases, no increase in the gas tax, and I can tell you that that was probably the biggest challenge in this bill, was to try to figure out what those pay-fors are and make sure those pay-fors real.

    To be honest with you, Judy, right now, I can't tell you exactly what the pay-fors are now. I know they look a whole lot different today than when we released this bill about a month ago, after the G-10 that negotiated it.

    But, nonetheless, I think we have lived up to the expectations of the Republicans on the pay-fors and the Democrats too. And the White House was OK with it. So I think it is going to be fine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the G-10 referring to the group of 10 bipartisan senators. You were one of them.

    Senator, you mentioned you think it's going to work out. But there's money in here, $200 billion, in unspent COVID relief. I think people are going to say, wait a minute, what was that money supposed to go for?

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    Yes. I mean, look, there are's going to be some questions asked about that.

    And I think if you take into consideration these are all CARES Act dollars, this bill was passed 15 months ago, and the fact that we didn't touch the Rescue Plan money, and it's still there, I think we are going to be OK.

    But I would also tell you this, Judy. We're not out of the woods on this pandemic. Everybody needs to get vaccinated, so we can get this behind us and move forward, because, if this flares up, there's no doubt that it could end up costing us some additional dollars. And, quite frankly, I'd rather put that money into infrastructure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And are there the votes in the Senate right now to pass this?

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    I think we're going to get a good bunch of Democrats, maybe every one of them. And I think we're going to get a pretty sizable group of Republicans too.

    And I think, if we do, that really speaks to the fact that maybe Washington can start working again and start coming together and start doing things that this country needs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last question, Senator.

    The fate of this so-called companion $3.5 trillion social infrastructure bill, money for home health care, for education, for the environment, what does its fate look like, and now that you have Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema saying she's not going to vote for it? And you need Democrats on board.

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    Well, look, I have been spending my time working on this bipartisan bill.

    As soon as we get this out of the Senate, then we will really focus on the reconciliation bill, which is $3.5 trillion. When I go home, I hear about housing, I hear about child care, I hear about senior care all the time.

    And I think that, depending on how this bill is structured, depending on how it's paid for, which we don't know either of at this moment in time, that will determine whether we're going to support the end product.

    But I have full confidence in the leadership in the Senate that we will be able to come together and get a bill that's good for this nation once again. But the proof will be in the pudding. We will see as time moves forth, and then we will analyze it every step of the way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Jon Tester of Montana, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    Judy, thank you.

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