Infrastructure Bill Moves Forward, but Bumpy Road Ahead

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Step One is complete. The Senate voted 67-32 Wednesday night to open debate on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, with 17 Republicans joining all Democrats in voting to advance the package. The vote puts the Senate on track to pass the bill by next week, potentially giving President Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of 10 lawmakers on a path to secure the bipartisan achievement they’ve pursued through weeks of up-and-down negotiations that at times seemed on the verge of collapse.

“In the end, the unique dynamics of the group, both personally and politically, helped make it happen,” Punchbowl News says, noting that the band of senators that hammered out the deal had shown a willingness to buck their own parties and work across the aisle. “It happened from the center out. In other words, at a time when Washington seems broken, this group of members behind me came together, along with others, and decided we were going to do something great for our country,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), the lead Republican negotiator, said at a celebratory press conference Wednesday night.

The vote, for now at least, also means that the two-track strategy adopted by Democratic leaders and the White House — pushing for a bipartisan deal while also moving ahead with a partisan, $3.5 trillion package comprising the rest of Biden’s economic agenda — seems to be working, though plenty of pitfalls remain.

“We are on track to pass both elements of the two-track strategy before we adjourn for August recess,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said. “It took some prodding and a few deadlines, but it all has worked out for the better.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) voted to begin consideration of the bill Wednesday, though some other members of his Republican Senate leadership team did not. McConnell expressed support for the deal in remarks on the Senate floor Thursday. “It’s guaranteed to be the kind of legislation that no member on either side of the aisle will think is perfect. But it’s an important, basic duty of government,” he said. “I’m glad to see these discussions making progress and I was happy to vote to begin moving the Senate toward what ought to be a robust, bipartisan floor process for legislation of this magnitude.”

What could still derail the bill:
The bipartisan deal now has some momentum behind it, but despite the happy talk, it still faces some hurdles to passage. For one thing, an official Congressional Budget Office estimate of the spending and revenue in the package could still swing some votes if it shows that the proposed pay-fors are less than credible.

“Although we are confident that the Senate can pass the bill remaining risks include a critical CBO score of the pay-for assumptions and the potential for poison-pill amendments,” Benjamin Salisbury, director of research at Height Capital Markets, said in a note on Thursday morning.

Portman told reporters Wednesday night that the bipartisan group was open to amendments but he hadn’t heard of any poison pills. “We want to get a strong vote because we need to send it over to the House like a torpedo, with plenty of bipartisan support,” he said.

The House could present some more significant challenges. Already, some Democrats — most notably Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure — have indicated that they have significant issues with the Senate deal and won’t vote for it unless it’s paired with a larger budget reconciliation package funding investments in health care, child care, education and climate — a stance that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has backed.

“Progressives have been clear from the beginning: a small and narrow bipartisan infrastructure bill does not have a path forward in the House of Representatives unless it has a reconciliation package, with our priorities, alongside it,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said. “The votes of Congressional Progressive Caucus members are not guaranteed on any bipartisan package until we examine the details, and until the reconciliation bill is agreed to and passed with our priorities sufficiently funded.”

‘Multiple near-death experiences’: Those threats by progressives may ultimately melt away under pressure from the White House and Democrats eyeing the calendar and looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections, but with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) insisting Wednesday that she won’t back a $3.5 trillion price tag on the second package, Democrats will likely face some painful intraparty fights in the coming weeks and months.

“We’re still going to face multiple near-death experiences, as is the case with any major legislation, but we’re going to do this,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI).

What’s next:
The text of the package was still being finalized, but the Senate could vote Friday on a motion to proceed and could consider amendments as soon as this weekend, with a final vote next week.

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