An Unlikely Pair, Portman and Sinema Steer Infrastructure Deal

An Ohio Republican who is retiring after decades in Washington has teamed with an Arizona Democrat in her first term to try to secure an agreement on one of President Biden’s top priorities.

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WASHINGTON — It had scarcely been 24 hours since a breakthrough vote in the Senate to move forward with a $1 trillion infrastructure bill when the two lead negotiators on the deal, Senators Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, and Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, knew they had a problem.

Republicans had seen a draft of the bill that was circulating on Capitol Hill, and believed that the Senate’s top Democrat, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, was trying to force them into swallowing changes their side had never agreed to accept. They were threatening to pull their support.

The pair swung into action, issuing an unusual public statement with a clear message: That is not our bill, and we are not done working. Not long after, the measure appeared back on track, surviving its second test vote in a week.

And Mr. Portman and Ms. Sinema, unlikely allies who are leading a fragile coalition of Republicans and Democrats, had pulled off the latest in a series of collaborations that have so far kept alive the sprawling infrastructure package — a crucial piece of President Biden’s agenda — despite myriad obstacles.

The two could not be more different, but each has powerful incentives to pursue an elusive deal. The strait-laced Mr. Portman, a creature of Washington who has served in the House, the White House and the Senate, is retiring and looking to cement his legacy as a pragmatic Republican who rejects the intense partisanship that has gripped Congress in recent years.

Ms. Sinema, an enigmatic first-term senator who relishes breaking with convention, is determined to prove her own deal-making prowess, and willing to counter progressive Democrats eager to push Republicans aside after years of seeing their priorities blocked.

Both are centrists who have been empowered by Mr. Biden’s desire for a bipartisan infrastructure deal, which he considers a political and policy imperative. And both have had to contend with hostility from within their own parties to that deal.

Mr. Portman called former President Donald J. Trump this month to ask him to embrace the emerging legislation, in a bid to blunt public criticism from Mr. Trump that he feared could cost Republican votes. But Mr. Trump did not back down, issuing several statements deriding “RINO” Republicans he said looked weak, foolish and dumb for negotiating with Democrats and risked primary challenges for doing so.

Ms. Sinema was receiving similar fire from liberal Democrats who were seething over her refusal to support eliminating the 60-vote legislative filibuster to achieve their policy goals.

Steering their bill through Congress remains a fraught endeavor. Senior lawmakers in both parties and both chambers have been rankled to see the band of 10 Republican and Democratic moderates writing such a complex piece of infrastructure legislation, despite some of them having little expertise on aspects of it. On Friday, a series of technical and policy issues delayed efforts to complete it.

Some Republicans remained skeptical over Mr. Portman’s eagerness for a deal and the prospect of handing Mr. Biden a critical policy win, while liberals have threatened to tank the compromise. They have been particularly angry that Ms. Sinema has said she is opposed to a separate $3.5 trillion package Democrats plan to move unilaterally, and which would carry the remainder of Mr. Biden’s economic agenda — including major investments in health care, education, child care and measures to tackle climate change — left out of the bipartisan deal.

Ms. Sinema has said she would allow an initial budget blueprint to advance, but her comments indicate that she would not support a bill that would allow a package of that size to become law.

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Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, is determined to prove her own deal-making prowess and the merits of bipartisanship.Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Amid the resistance from inside their own parties, the pair — who struck up a friendship on a civil rights trip to Alabama nearly a decade ago, according to Ms. Sinema — have forged a rapport.

“Trust,” Mr. Portman said, when asked why the partnership worked. “It was because we saw an opportunity to do something good for the country, making lemonade out of lemons.”

As Mr. Biden began rolling out pieces of his economic agenda this year, Mr. Portman and Ms. Sinema began discussing the possibility of reviving the coalition that helped pave the way for passage of the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill in December. Mr. Biden was already engaged in conversations with Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, about a possible compromise, but the duo began quietly working in the background on an alternative they believed could work should those talks fail, which they did in June.

Many members of their group had participated in the coronavirus talks in late 2020.

“Everybody knows what people’s strengths and foibles are,” said Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia and a key negotiator. “If this group of people had not worked together before, I don’t think we would have gotten there.”

There were setbacks. After the group held a triumphant news conference at the White House with Mr. Biden, announcing the outlines of a deal, the president nearly torpedoed their progress with comments suggesting he would not sign the bipartisan agreement unless the much larger budget package also reached his desk.

As White House advisers frantically worked to smooth over the backlash, Mr. Biden called Ms. Sinema and Mr. Portman separately and assured them he supported the agreement. He asked Mr. Portman for suggestions on how to remedy the situation, according to a Republican official close to the talks.

“There have been hiccups multiple times every single day, right, all along this process for many months,” Ms. Sinema said in an interview on Thursday.

“We’ve approached all of our hiccups in the same fashion,” she added. “How do we get through this? How do we continue working? And how do we reach our goal?”

Even after Mr. Biden had smoothed over his comments, the fate of the deal was uncertain. Translating an agreement in principle into legislation that could draw the support of at least 60 senators took weeks.

The question of how to pay for the package was particularly tricky. After strenuous lobbying from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, Republicans dropped their support for a provision that would have beefed up the ability of the I.R.S. to collect unpaid taxes. The group spent hours on the phone, on Zoom and in rooms across the Capitol, hashing out differences over chips and guacamole, pizza and salads and wine often procured by Mr. Warner and Ms. Sinema.

In those discussions, Mr. Portman, who was President George W. Bush’s budget director, helped drive the policy discussions for Republicans, while Ms. Sinema wrangled the group’s meetings and helped keep their focus on the issues on hand.

“They have a good relationship with one another, and in a relationship that is built on trust,” Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said of the pair in an interview.

In order to finalize the agreement, the senators ultimately splintered into small working groups, each tasked with hammering out different aspects of the bill, including transit and broadband projects, and financing provisions.

While at her birthday dinner last Saturday night, Ms. Sinema was on a call with Senators Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, and Ms. Collins, reconciling a series of accounting figures about unspent pandemic relief money, a key financing mechanism, Ms. Collins recalled. (Having nicknamed the four senators “the Wonder Women,” Ms. Sinema gifted the other three stemless wine glasses with the superhero’s logo.)

Mr. Portman spent nine hours on Tuesday in his conference room in the Russell Senate Office Building with Steve Ricchetti, the White House counselor, wrestling with how to resolve remaining issues, including transit funding.

At one point, Mr. Portman’s phone grew so clogged with voice mails that Mr. Biden was unable to leave him a message, according to a Republican official close to the talks. (They later connected.)

“I really appreciated the constant communication that both of them had,” Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, said of Mr. Portman and Ms. Sinema during the negotiations.

Even after clearing two key procedural hurdles this week, it is far from guaranteed that the unwritten legislation will become law.

The delay on Friday prompted Mr. Portman and Ms. Sinema to reassure their colleagues that they were still a team, and still dedicated to seeing through their negotiations.

“When legislative text is finalized that reflects the product of our group, we will make it public together consistent with the bipartisan way we’ve worked for the last four months,” they said in their statement.

Later, both of them could be seen on the Senate floor buttonholing colleagues and talking through possible revisions to the bill. But by Friday evening, when the Senate adjourned, their bill was still not finished.

Jim Tankersley, Carl Hulse, Nicholas Fandos and Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.

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