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Senate falling behind on infrastructure

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The Hill
The Hill
 8 days ago
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© Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is falling behind on his plan to pass both a bipartisan infrastructure package and a budget resolution during the July work period after Republicans voted in unison Wednesday to block a motion to begin the infrastructure debate.

Now the start of the Senate floor debate will be delayed another week as a bipartisan group of negotiators scramble to finish up work on a sprawling $1.2 trillion, eight-year spending plan.

A group of centrist Republicans say they will be ready to vote next week to begin consideration of an infrastructure bill but they still have to hammer out final agreements on an array of outstanding issues. They’re also waiting to find out whether their proposals to pay for the package will pass muster with the Congressional Budget Office.

But there’s growing skepticism in the Democratic caucus, and also the GOP conference, on whether there will be enough support to pass the bill in the end.

“Time was never on our side,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to raise doubts about his colleague’s progress in negotiating with Republicans. “I’m somewhat cynical. We’re close until we’re not close and we’re not close until it’s all done.”

In other words, with a final deal elusive, there are growing doubts about whether a group of mostly rank-and-file senators can negotiate the biggest infrastructure deal in the nation’s history on their own.

The setback on the floor Wednesday, when all 50 Senate Republicans voted to block a motion to proceed to a legislative vehicle that will be used to advance any bipartisan infrastructure deal, means there’s little chance of getting the $1.2 trillion package passed before month’s end.

That in turn will delay consideration of the Senate budget resolution, which Schumer pledged to complete before the Senate leaves for the August recess on Aug. 6.

It now looks like senators will have to cut some of the planned recess if they are to meet Schumer’s goal of passing a bipartisan infrastructure package and budget resolution before July.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a leading centrist who is negotiating the bipartisan infrastructure package, said Schumer is expected to schedule a vote on another motion to begin a floor debate Monday but cautioned that’s only “if we’ll get everything together” in the bipartisan group.

That’s still a big if.

The negotiators are waiting on several budget scores from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation and acknowledge it will be tough to get it all translated into legislative language by Monday. That means if there’s another vote to begin debate at the start of next week, some lawmakers may have to take it on faith that the text of the bipartisan deal will match how it’s being described.

Schumer didn’t make any statement on the floor after the vote on how what his next steps are and Democratic colleagues say he hasn’t yet laid out his strategy for next week before the caucus.

But senators who attended a caucus lunch Tuesday said there’s overwhelming sentiment among Democratic lawmakers that they need to show continued progress.

“I think they’ll continue negotiating over the weekend,” said a second Democratic senator, who voiced skepticism that any bipartisan deal will garner 60 votes to get past a filibuster. The senator raised doubts on whether the necessary 10 Republican senators will back the measure, stating: "It’s not clear to me there are."

If the bipartisan package is not ready by Monday, Schumer could bring back a motion to begin debate on one of the infrastructure bills that has passed out of committee with strong bipartisan support, such as the highway bill, which passed out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee 20-0, or the rail safety bill that passed out of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee 25-3.

The bipartisan group has run into a problem with Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), the senior Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, by agreeing to add $48.5 trillion for public transit on top of the traditional 20 percent division of highway funding for transit and the estimated $40 billion still available in unspent transit funding from previous COVID-19 relief packages.

Toomey wants his committee, which has jurisdiction over transit, to have its own markup on the issue instead of ceding it entirely to the bipartisan group.

Toomey and Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), the lead Republican negotiator for the bipartisan group, met privately on Wednesday to hash out their differences but Toomey declined afterward to say whether his concerns have been addressed.

Members of the bipartisan group issued a joint statement Wednesday afternoon seeking to allay fears that their talks have stalled just short of the finish line.

“We have made significant progress and are close to a final agreement. We will continue working hard to ensure we get this critical legislation right — and are optimistic that we will finalize, and be prepared to advance, this historic bipartisan proposal to strengthen America’s infrastructure and create good-paying jobs in the coming days,” they wrote.

Ten Republicans, 11 Democrats and one Independent who caucuses with Democrats — Sen. Angus King (Maine) — signed the statement.

In addition, 11 Republicans have signed a letter to Schumer pledging they’ll be ready to vote next week to proceed to the infrastructure bill, assuming the package will be closer to completion by then.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) signed the letter to Schumer but not Wednesday’s joint statement attesting to “significant progress” and the group being “close to a final agreement.”

Portman and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), two of the lead negotiators, say the sheer size and complexity of the package have made it difficult to finish up work on it quickly.

“We solved a lot of issues and we’re all working very hard,” Collins said. “It’s going to take time to get legislative language drafted and the provisions scored.”

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