GOP blocks infrastructure debate in Senate, raising doubts about a deal

By Emily Cochrane

Republicans blocked the Senate earlier this week from taking up an emerging bipartisan infrastructure plan, raising doubts about the fate of a major piece of President Joe Biden’s agenda even as negotiators continued to seek a compromise.

The failed vote underscored the intense mistrust between the two parties, which has complicated the effort to complete a deal. Both Republicans and Democrats in the group seeking a deal say they are still making progress toward agreement on a package with nearly $600 billion in new funds for roads, bridges, rail, transit and other infrastructure, which could be the first major infusion of federal public works spending since the 2009 stimulus law.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and the Senate majority leader, forced the vote in a bid to intensify pressure for a swift resolution to the talks, acting over the pleas of centrist Republicans who said they needed more time to solidify their deal with Democrats. With many Democrats harboring concerns that Republicans will drag out the process only to withhold support from a final bill, he argued that there was still time to iron out final details.

“This vote is not a deadline to have every final detail worked out; it is not an attempt to jam anyone,” Schumer said before the vote, adding that negotiators would have “many opportunities” to add their plan to the bill “even if they need a few more days to finalize the language.”

But Republicans said they were not ready to commit to considering an infrastructure measure and warned that putting the matter to a vote risked scuttling a potential bipartisan breakthrough. On Wednesday, as they shuttled between meetings and votes, Republican negotiators said a final deal could emerge in the coming days, about a month after they first triumphantly announced agreement on a framework.

“We’re optimistic that once we get past this vote today that we’re going to continue our work and that we will be ready in the coming days,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine and a key negotiator. She said members of the group “think that we will be largely ready on Monday.”

With all 50 Republicans in the Senate opposed, Democrats fell short of the 60 votes that would have been needed to move forward with an infrastructure debate. All 50 members of the Democratic caucus initially voted to proceed, but Schumer switched his vote to enable him under Senate rules to bring up the measure again.

It was an inauspicious beginning to what Democrats had hoped would be a period of intense activity on Capitol Hill, with action on a bipartisan infrastructure measure and a far more ambitious, $3.5 trillion partisan budget blueprint that would include money to address climate change, expand health care and education and broaden child care and paid leave.

Instead, senators spent Wednesday voicing frustration over their failure to begin debating the infrastructure plan and privately meeting to work through the details of how to structure and finance the package. In a joint statement after the vote, 22 senators involved in and briefed on the bipartisan efforts professed optimism that they could finish the deal and vowed to keep working over the coming days.

At a town-hall discussion in Cincinnati on Wednesday, Biden predicted that Republicans would need “till Monday” to get the deal done, but that it would come together.

“I come from a tradition in the Senate, you shake your hand, that’s it. You keep your word. And I’ve found Rob Portman does that,” Biden said, referring to an Ohio senator who is one of the Republicans leading the negotiations. He added, “I think it’s going to get done.”

Republicans, including the five negotiators who have been involved in discussions on a compromise, argued that Democrats had threatened their progress by rushing a vote on the package before the deal was ready. Democrats questioned why Republicans, many of whom have said they want a bipartisan infrastructure compromise, would be unwilling to simply allow a debate to move forward while the negotiations proceed.

Underlying the finger-pointing were long-standing worries by both parties about the political ramifications of a deal. Democrats, particularly progressives, have long been concerned that Republicans would drag out negotiations to force concessions and then ultimately withhold their support.

Republicans are wary of getting prematurely locked into an agreement with Biden that members of their own party — many of whom deeply oppose costly federal spending packages — might reject.

Still, even as they voted unanimously against the maneuver, several Senate Republicans said they would support a rescheduled vote as early as Monday if a deal could be reached by then. At least 11 Republicans — enough to overcome a filibuster if every Democrat and independent agreed — readied a letter to Schumer making that commitment, though it was unclear Wednesday whether he had received it.

For Republicans who have been negotiating the infrastructure deal with Democrats, voting no Wednesday was a calculated gamble that they could swiftly finish the text and it could be brought up for another vote. Should they complete the deal in the coming days, they would still have to persuade enough of their colleagues to support the measure for it clear the 60-vote filibuster threshold.

Since announcing their agreement on an initial framework, a bipartisan group of 10 senators and top White House officials have haggled over the details of an overall package set to provide $1.2 trillion over eight years, with $579 billion in new funding for roads, bridges, broadband and highways on top of the continuation of existing transportation programs, which committee leaders have largely agreed to outside the talks.

But the failed vote still frustrated some liberal Democrats, who have repeatedly warned against what they view as the mistakes of 2010, when they delayed votes on the Affordable Care Act in hopes of Republican votes that never emerged. They have argued that Democrats can easily slip the new spending for roads, bridges, broadband and highways into the broader spending package set to take shape in the coming weeks.

Lawmakers remain at odds over how to maintain funding levels for existing transit programs. The group of key negotiators also has to finalize how to finance the overall measure, with Republicans in particular reluctant to support legislation that is not completely paid for.

In discussions over the weekend, negotiators jettisoned a provision that would boost IRS enforcement to collect unpaid taxes as a result of conservative backlash. Instead, they are now debating the terms of undoing a Trump-era rule that changes the way drug companies can offer discounts to health plans for Medicare patients as an option.

Democrats are also working to hammer out the contours of the $3.5 trillion budget blueprint, which will unlock the fast-track reconciliation process and allow party leaders to advance the remainder of their economic priorities on a simple majority vote, bypassing Republicans. That outline will most likely not emerge until Budget Committee staff members know whether to accommodate elements of the bipartisan framework, which would push the cost of the package higher.

“Our job right now is to move this thing as rapidly as we can,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is in charge of the Senate Budget Committee. “My hope is that by early August, we will have a budget proposal to bring to the floor for a vote and do what the American people want.”

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