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Infrastructure Talks Are On the Verge of Collapse—Unless They’re Not

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Perhaps you’ve seen the ESPN tweet that has drawn some legitimately funny responses, asking people on the social media platform to name something that feels like an Olympic sport but isn’t. Well, with frustrations bubbling over at the Capitol as infrastructure talks enter their fifth secretive week, Sen. Mark Warner had his own answer for ESPN last night: “Trying to negotiate a bipartisan infrastructure deal.”

It was a darkly funny quip for the Virginia Democrat that reflects the mounting frustration among the roughly two dozen Senators invested in delivering the deal. The lawmakers and their top aides worked through the weekend chasing an agreement from home and huddled in person yesterday. Aides in both parties say they are close, but key disagreements remain over the ratio of dollars dedicated to highways and to transit systems. (Historically, for every $1 going to transit systems, typically found in cities, another $4 would go to highways that fuel rural America.) The bigger challenge, perhaps, is that lawmakers also haven’t agreed how to pay for the almost $600 billion in new federal spending plans.

Senate Democrats need to stay united and bring over 10 Republicans to support the bipartisan deal to get it passed. So far, there are at least 10 Republicans involved in the talks, though there are signs that even they could go wobbly. Precarious is a word being bandied about a lot right now. Fragile is another. Put simply, this is one bad side eye from seeing a $4 trillion package on infrastructure implode on itself with nothing but bitter aftertaste to show. As Sen. Susan Collins left one negotiating session, she offered a blunt assessment of the back and forth: “It’s painful.”

Back on June 24, President Joe Biden and a group of bipartisan Senators announced they had broadly reached a deal on a hard infrastructure package. In the weeks since, though, there’s been plenty of haggling over specifics, including the scrapping of plans in the deal that would make it tougher on tax scofflaws. While lawmakers have been unfailingly civil to this point, patience is clearly wearing thin with this group. On the Right, Republicans are arguing against giving the White House a win heading into next year’s midterms. On the Left, Democrats are calling it a watered-down effort that leaves too much of the agenda behind. (They’ll get a chance for a second bite in a Democrats-alone bill that is clocking in at $3.5 trillion.) In the White House, there is a mounting disbelief that the lawmakers would abandon their handshake agreement.

And inside the negotiating room, an escalating quarrel could derail the whole thing. Leaders of both parties recognize that the longer this drags on, the more entrenched each side will become. Flashes of frustration and fatalism are breaking out, as was the case when Democrats accused Mitt Romney for reneging on a $15 billion plan to replace lead pipes and the Utah Republican erupted. Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, told reporters that if the bipartisan talks break down, so will the Democrats-alone dreams. “I would say that if the bipartisan infrastructure bill falls apart, everything could fall apart,” he said.

Need proof that things are at a critical moment? Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is telling colleagues that they may want to get refundable tickets out of Washington at the end of the week in case they need to stick around and wrap up work on this proposal. Senators typically high-tail it to Washington’s Reagan National Airport on Thursday afternoon to get home for weekends with their families, and few actually like sticking around D.C., especially in the swamp-like summer months. Being stuck here working on this over a weekend is incentive enough for many to get to yes on the final sticking points.

But patience is in short supply in both parties. Schumer has indicated he won’t bring it for a vote again until he’s sure it can get over a 60-vote threshold. The deal failed a test vote last week, signaling they still had plenty of work to do on the framework. But those involved in the talks and those who are not alike are quietly telling their party leaders that it’s time to bring what they have to the floor. Either the deal is in hand—or it’s not. “There reaches a point (where) if you can’t reach an agreement, you have to be honest about it,” Sen. Dick Durbin, a key Schumer deputy, told reporters at the Capitol yesterday.

Much like not everyone can be an Olympian, not every idea gets to become a bill. The contours of this deal may have seemed like an easy lift. Picking it up, however, may have proven far slippier.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com