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Biden says U.S. is "way behind the rest of the world" on infrastructure

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President Biden visited Philadelphia on Friday to promote his massive infrastructure plan and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Amtrak. CBS News senior White House and political correspondent Ed O'Keefe joins CBSN's Elaine Quijano to discuss.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: President Biden visited Philadelphia Friday to promote his massive infrastructure plan and celebrate the 50th anniversary of Amtrak. Mr. Biden was a longtime Amtrak rider during his time in the Senate. During his remarks, he emphasized what he said was a critical need to transform the nation's infrastructure to compete with the rest of the world. Mr. Biden added that improving the nation's railways was also a critical part of his American Jobs Plan.

JOE BIDEN: And like the rest of our infrastructure, we're way behind the rest of the world right now. We need to remember we're in competition with the rest of the world. People come here and set up businesses, people stay here, people grow because of their ability to access-- access transportation, access all the infrastructure.

It will allows us to compete. It's going to provide jobs, and it will also accommodate jobs. And what this means is that towns and cities that have been in danger of being left out and left behind will be back in the game. It means families don't have to sacrifice the cost of living or quality of access to opportunity that sometimes only occurs if they live in a big city.

ELAINE QUIJANO: For more, I want to bring in CBS News senior White House and political correspondent Ed O'Keefe. He is in Philadelphia. Hi there, Ed. So how did President Biden use Friday's speech to promote his infrastructure plan?

ED O'KEEFE: Well, he did it, Elaine, by, you know, essentially giving a pat on the back and a big presidential hug to his favorite mode of transportation, the one that brought him to and from Delaware for more than 30 years as a senator. As he has been prone to say, he's taken more than 8,000 round trips on Amtrak between Wilmington, Delaware, and your nation's capital and told a bunch of stories about the conductors and others that he got to know on the Amtrak service through the years, made a joke that if he ever ended up in Philadelphia, it was because he probably was on the late train from Washington and fell asleep and didn't get off in Wilmington.

It was that kind of a speech from the president. But to the broader point he's trying to make now as he continues to try to sell his Jobs and Families Plans, it's that there's about $80 billion worth of work that Amtrak needs done to improve the rail lines, to buy new cars, to renovate stations like this beautiful 38th Street Station here in Philadelphia, to try to expand rail service, not just here in the Northeast where it's the most popular and most relied upon, but down through the South, out in Texas, out in California into the Midwest.

Amtrak runs trains through most of the country, they're just not as widely used because the stations aren't as accessible. It's a service that runs much less frequently. Politicians like Biden for years have been pushing to expand rail as a way to help reduce the carbon footprint, make it easier for people to get across the country.

We'll see, ultimately, whether it can happen. But on the rail service's 50th anniversary, which is this weekend, to have a longtime customer come to one of its busiest stations to celebrate it, it's a huge day for Amtrak. And certainly, they're expecting that as this infrastructure debate continues, they'll get their hands on that money.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, the president also connected climate change to his infrastructure plan. And I want to play some of what he had to say on that point. Let's listen to that.

JOE BIDEN: As I've said from the beginning, when I think about fighting climate change, I think about jobs and rail. And hopefully the expansion of rail provides good union jobs, good-paying jobs, but also connects people to jobs and economic opportunities that can be reached from wherever you live.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So Ed, who was the president trying to reach exactly by tying these two issues together?

ED O'KEEFE: And actually, I'd argue it's three issues, Elaine. It's climate change. It's the economy. And it's fulfilling a campaign pledge to talk up, and promote, and boost this nation's organized labor unions as much as possible. So really, it's those three issues.


ED O'KEEFE: And in doing so, it's--


ED O'KEEFE: --you know, backing up people who backed him up during his presidential campaign, the labor unions. Second, climate change, of course, a priority. Polling shows it is for many voters. It obviously is for his party and for the far left. But when he makes an economic argument while talking about climate change, he's trying to sell it to skeptics who think that it's just about clean air, and planting more trees, and doing things that may not necessarily require government work or perhaps is getting too much government attention.

The argument being look, if we retrofit the country, it's going to result in jobs. It's going to result in economic growth. And there's been a debate, especially in the Democratic Party or on the left, about the best way to talk about the issue of climate change. You know, why is there no sloganeering? Why is there no more of an emotional connection as there is with other issues, whether it's gun control, or immigration, or abortion rights?

You know, there's never been a real rallying motto or movement or character around it. By trying to make the economic argument, the president hopes it helps the American public realize gosh, if we do all these things, you know, myself or my neighbor or my cousin might get a job out of it, and that would be a great thing. You know, that's the argument they've been making for years that as you build wind turbines or install the solar panels, it's going to create tens of thousands of jobs.

You're getting closer to a point where you're going to see that now as some of the money from that Rescue Plan gets spent, the plan that they passed earlier this year. His hope is that by passing the $4 trillion worth of ideas that he now has, you're going to see even more of that in the coming years, and it makes it harder for Republicans, ultimately, to be voting against these things if, ultimately, there's a measurable sense of job growth in certain parts of the country because of these changes.

So we'll see if it works. But it is a new and different way to be talking about climate change. And when he does it, he's also trying to say to his own party, look, this is the way you should talk about it, because this is the way it could potentially get implemented in a town where it's been a hard issue to take up.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Yeah, it is really notable, Ed. You're right, this is an approach that we haven't necessarily seen before, a very direct and explicit framing for this blue-collar, as the president would cast it, approach to climate and jobs and union jobs, as you so rightly point out. So it will be interesting to see how that's received.

Now, the president, of course, was not the only administration official on the road discussing infrastructure. Who else, Ed, is helping to try and sell his plan? And what is the White House's overall strategy here?

ED O'KEEFE: Sure. We're in the midst of about a dozen days' worth of travel by the president, the first lady, the vice president, her husband, and then other cabinet secretaries, the vice president today also visiting Ohio to talk about transportation funding. Notably, she landed in Kentucky and took one of those bridges in Cincinnati across the river into Ohio to make the point that this is the kind of infrastructure we're trying to fix.

She heads next week to Wisconsin. The president will go to Virginia. Her husband, Doug Emhoff, was in North Carolina today. He's part of the traveling as well. He was with the Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who's also on the road trying to push these ideas. The first lady will be doing other travel as well.

Some of the other cabinet secretaries will be making appearances across the country. All of this designed during what is now a congressional recess. The House is out this week and next week. The Senate's out next week. An opportunity for them to sort of fill the space, get out there, push the country to support these ideas, just as they did with the Rescue Plan earlier this year that passed with overwhelming public support and the support of a lot of Republicans, even if it didn't win congressional Republican support.

They're hoping they can replicate that and show in the next two weeks or so that public support is building. And even if they can't get Republican votes, make Democrats confident enough that if you do it on your own without Republican support, a majority of the country will be behind you. And if that works for them, you know, you will probably see this kind of legislation passed later this year, even though there are still disagreements among Democrats about how to pay for this and what exactly needs to be done.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So is the main criticism from Senate Republicans on this plan, Ed, still at this point what constitutes infrastructure, in addition, of course, to the price tag, which has consistently been something we've heard about from the very beginning? And if so, are there areas within that definition of infrastructure that it appears the president and Democrats may be willing to give on at all?

ED O'KEEFE: Well, so maybe, but the White House would tell you it's not about what we want to give on. If they're opposed to what our definition of infrastructure is, and if they're opposed to how we would pay for it, where's their proposal on what to do? And unless or until they see--


ED O'KEEFE: --serious ones from Republicans, do they want to seriously engage on this? The-- the person who appears to be bringing forth the most serious ideas so far, in the view of the White House, is Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who got on the phone with the president on Thursday to talk about this. The White House was more than happy to point out that they talked. She even posted a photo on Instagram with a phone call she was taking to demonstrate we're working on a potentially serious counterproposal here.

Far cheaper, it would only be about $800 billion, which is still a lot of money, but the Republican point being this is the universe of things that we consider to be infrastructure. Yes, roads and rails, water lines, expanding broadband, but none of this stuff about elder care or, you know, other-- other things in regards to child care, and child tax credits, and whatnot that the president's also proposing. And look, there are disagreements among Democrats about how exactly to pay for this as well, how much the corporate tax rate should go up, if of all, who exactly among the wealthiest of Americans should have to pay more.

We'll see if they can come to an agreement on that. We expect more meetings on this at the White House next week with Republicans, and then bigger meetings the following week when all the congressional leaders are back. And so by about two weeks from today, Elaine, we should have a sense of how serious the bipartisan possibilities are. And if they aren't, you're probably going to start to see Democrats try to sort this out just amongst themselves.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right, a lot to watch. Ed O'Keefe coming to us tonight from the very telegenic 38th Street Station there in Philadelphia. I know it well, Ed. It is a gorgeous place. Enjoy. Thanks so much, Ed.

ED O'KEEFE: Sure is. Take care.