A bipartisan group of senators voted to move forward on a compromise infrastructure bill on Wednesday, a significant step toward achieving a major item on President Joe Biden’s agenda.
All Democrats voted in favor of moving forward with the infrastructure proposal, as did 17 Republicans. Among the GOP senators were key negotiators Rob Portman (Ohio), Mitt Romney (Utah), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Bill Cassidy (La.).
The deal came together midday Wednesday after weeks of meetings and broken deadlines, with talks seemingly on the brink of collapse and finger-pointing by both sides only days earlier.
But on Wednesday, Republicans announced they reached a compromise with Senate Democrats and the White House on an infrastructure bill that includes $550 billion in new spending, slightly less than they had initially discussed a month ago. The agreement came after a lengthy meeting between Portman and White House adviser Steve Richetti, one of Biden’s most trusted aides.
“This deal signals to the world that our democracy can function, deliver, and do big things. As we did with the transcontinental railroad and the interstate highway, we will once again transform America and propel us into the future,” Biden said in a statement.
“Of course, neither side got everything they wanted in this deal. But that’s what it means to compromise and forge consensus—the heart of democracy,” he added.
The compromise invests more than $175 billion toward building and repairing roads, bridges and railroads; $39 billion on public transportation; and $65 billion on expanding access to high-speed internet. It includes tens of billions more to improve electric and power grids, and making school buses and ferries more environmentally friendly.
Although Wednesday’s procedural vote allows the Senate to begin debate on the infrastructure bill, its final passage remains uncertain. Several senior Democrats expressed concerns with the deal after a lengthy caucus meeting on Wednesday, telling reporters they’d like to see further changes.
“Work in progress,” is all Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said when asked about the measure.
Meanwhile, rank-and-file Republican senators questioned whether the bill would truly be paid for given the hodge-podge of revenue sources negotiators are relying on. They also complained that they needed to see legislative text, which has yet to be finalized.
“I’m concerned about the pay-fors,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told HuffPost, referring to some of the revenue sources as “gimmicks.”
Figuring out how to fund these investments has proved to be the most difficult part of negotiations. The task was made even harder after Republicans successfully lobbied against a provision that would have strengthened IRS enforcement, yielding over $100 billion in revenue. The bipartisan negotiators ultimately settled on repurposing roughly $200 billion previously allocated to address the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as recouping money fraudulently paid through the supplemental federal unemployment insurance system.
Lawmakers also have proposed delaying a Medicare drug pricing regulation introduced under former President Donald Trump, imposing regulations on crypto-currency, and “pension smoothing” — which is often seen as an accounting ploy.
Notably, the Democratic and Republican negotiators are also banking on this bill paying for itself, in part, by emphasizing rosy projections for economic growth that could come as a result of these infrastructure investments.
This procedural vote is a good sign that negotiations are at least trending toward something passing — just last week, Republicans voted down Democrats’ attempt to proceed on debate for a yet-to-be-finalized infrastructure deal — but still a lot remains in flux.
Republicans are likely to push for many amendments to the bill in an attempt to delay its passage, a process that could stretch well into the weekend.
And in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calf.) would not commit to taking up whatever the Senate passes, saying her chamber would first have to evaluate the bill and see if there would be a need for further changes.
Pelosi has also said the House will not vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill without the Senate first approving a budget for a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package — which would be a partisan proposal to address the many policies (like child care, paid leave and climate provisions) that Republicans refuse to engage on.
“Without a reconciliation package that meets this moment, I’m a no on this bipartisan deal,” Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), a newly elected progressive tweeted in response to the Senate’s proposal.
But for now, the Senate has only jumped over its first hurdle — this procedural vote — and still has a lot of negotiating and bill writing to do.
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