AILSA CHANG, HOST:
President Biden says he is willing to negotiate, and that is just what he's been trying to do this afternoon in a meeting with some of the top Republicans and Democrats who are key to passing his $2 trillion infrastructure plan. This meeting comes as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says Republicans are disinclined to support the plan in its current form. Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state chairs the Senate Commerce Committee. She was in the meeting today at the White House and joins us now.
MARIA CANTWELL: Welcome - thank you so much.
CHANG: Thank you for being here. So you have said yourself that there is room for bipartisan negotiation here. Is that what it actually felt like inside the Oval Office...
CHANG: ...This afternoon?
CANTWELL: ...Members on both sides that were there today - first of all, the Oval Office is a great place to have a meeting - right? - because everybody comes together with the president, the vice president. And everybody talked about how infrastructure was critical to America's competitiveness. They all had examples. And they talked about, historically, how the Senate, the House had come together on infrastructure investment in the past. So traditionally, it has been bipartisan.
CHANG: OK. Well, President Biden does say he's willing to negotiate. Did he talk about specifically what he is willing to give on? Did he say anything about that today?
CANTWELL: Well, I think the president was clear that he wanted to hear from people. He asked them if there were things on the list that they didn't, you know, want to consider as infrastructure. Nobody really focused on that. Mostly, people focused on the aspects of infrastructure that really do affect their own states, which I think is important to know and understand when putting a package together.
But also, the president said he's willing to have his team come up to the Hill, meet with individual senators, meet with people who were in that room to continue to shape out these discussions. And I thought that was, you know, a serious offer to see where we can go from here. So there were people there that looked like they wanted to take the president up on that. And we'll see what happens after today.
CHANG: OK. That sounds good in theory, but let's talk about some of the specific points at play here. Let's talk about paying for this proposal. The current package is going to cost $2 trillion. The president is proposing to pay for it with a corporate tax hike. Do you think he's willing to cut the overall cost of the plan or do you think he's open to other ways to pay for it? Did he say anything on that front today?
CANTWELL: Well, I think the key thing is like the previous COVID package in the sense that the president feels that this needs to be a significant investment that America needs to make so it can remain competitive. He doesn't want to see America in a decline on infrastructure that affects farmers and manufacturers and their ability to make product and get it to its destination. So he doesn't want a small package. He wants a major package.
And I think that was his main contention from the meeting, is that the previous COVID package, people said they wanted to negotiate, but really wanted to do about a third or, you know, somewhere between a third and half of what he wanted to do. So I think the president is saying this has to be a significant investment, that these long-term problems in a, you know, transportation, rail, you know, competitiveness, the various issues in the marketplace as it relates to the supply chain and America being competitive like the earlier meeting he had today on high tech chips and various things, I think he thinks these are really, truly about growing jobs in the future.
CHANG: But what about paying for the plan? What about this corporate tax hike idea? I mean, it's not just Republicans expressing reservations about that.
CANTWELL: Well, I think...
CHANG: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a moderate Democrat, he needs to buy into this, too, right?
CANTWELL: Right. And there...
CHANG: And he's expressed reservations about the corporate tax hike. So do you think President Biden is open to finding another way to pay for this plan?
CANTWELL: I think the president is open to a discussion about what the Senate or House is willing to do. I think the president has heard, though, from corporations and people like Jeff Bezos who are like, yup, I'm ready to go. So I think the president's hearing from some of those individuals and thinking, I'm hearing a lot of support for this. They think it's worth the investment. But he said, I'm willing to listen to my Senate colleagues from the past to hear what they have to say, and I'm willing to send my team up to the Hill to listen.
CHANG: That is Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state.
Thank you very much for joining us today, Senator.
CANTWELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.