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Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet

The Hill
The Hill
 2021-07-31
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Senators are preparing to put the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure proposal backed by President Biden through a legislative gauntlet as negotiators work to maintain, and potentially grow, their coalition.

Getting the bill through the Senate would be a win for Biden and a core group of centrists who have made big political bets on the ability of Congress to cut long-sought deals. And the negotiators are feeling increasingly bullish about their chances for success after overcoming two early hurdles.

But plenty of challenges lie ahead.

Republicans are pushing for a lengthy Senate debate, including votes as potential changes to the bill, even as Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants to wrap up the entire process in a matter of days. Not all of the 17 GOP senators who have helped advance the package have committed to sticking with it, and top progressives haven’t vowed their support.

“There’s going to be curveballs after curveballs,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a member of the bipartisan group.

Asked about Schumer’s plan to pass the bill in a matter of days, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) added, “Oh, I think he’s being overly optimistic.”

The floor slog comes as senators have been negotiating late into the night to try to finalize the text of their agreement after they announced earlier this week that they had a deal on the “major issues” with Biden’s blessing. That major step forward came roughly a month after the core group of 10 senators announced an agreement on a framework for $1.2 trillion over eight years.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), after the group met with Schumer late Friday afternoon, said two of the biggest sticking points had been resolved: transit and broadband provisions.

“So we’re ready to go,” he said.

But Republicans say they want to offer a substantial number of amendments. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has voted to advance the bill so far, warned that his caucus wants a “robust, bipartisan floor process.”

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 GOP senator, predicted that he and other Senate Commerce Committee Republicans would likely have changes to the broadband language.

And Cornyn said he is drafting amendments to change how the bill is paid for, including looking at user fees, a revenue stream that Democrats have balked at putting on the table.

“We’re working on some ideas that maybe could help bolster the pay-fors,” he said.

Asked if Republicans are going to want amendments, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who has been supporting the package, added “Oh yeah, for sure, and so will the Democrats.”

Leadership is likely going to have to negotiate an agreement on how many amendments come up for a vote and how to divide them up between Republicans and Democrats.

“I’ve talked to some colleagues on our side and on their side who have amendments that sound pretty reasonable to me,” Portman said.

The bipartisan deal has sparked backlash from conservatives and former President Trump , who argue that by helping Democrats pass the $1.2 trillion plan, which includes $550 billion in new spending, they are making it easier for Democrats to pass an expansive $3.5 trillion plan. Democrats are planning to use budget rules that let them bypass Republicans in order to pass the larger bill, which will include some of the party’s top priorities, such as immigration reform, expanding Medicare and combating climate change.

GOP Sens. Rick Scott (Fla.), Mike Lee (Utah), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Ted Cruz (Texas), Josh Hawley (Mo.), Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) and Mike Braun (Ind.) said in a joint statement that they would not be supporting the bipartisan bill.

“Let’s not forget, this is just the first step in the Democrats’ plan to pass their $5.5 trillion tax and spend liberal wish list,” they said, referencing an analysis from budget watchdog group the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget that found the $3.5 trillion bill could cost up to $5.5 trillion over a decade if made permanent.

And while 17 GOP senators have backed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan measure during procedural votes, several described themselves as tentative until they see the legislative text and an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office on whether the provisions will cover the cost of the proposal.

“I can’t say until I see the statutory language. In fact, I can tell you that I told the whip organization that I’ll vote to move to the bill, but I’m not going to tell you how I’m going to vote for the bill yet,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), one of the two members of GOP leadership who supported starting debate on the bill, added, “I want to be a yes.”

And Cramer, asked if he will support the bill in a final vote, said, “Not yet ... but I expect to land there,” absent big changes.

Members of the bipartisan group are hoping they will be able to pick up more support before a final vote. Some Republicans, such as Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), have said they voted no earlier because they hadn’t seen the final legislation. And in a boon to the group, Cornyn, who has so far not supported the bill, predicted the Senate would pass the package.

“[Schumer’s] going to have to give people an opportunity to have a reasonable number of amendments ... but I think that this is going to pass, and I think it will pass before the end of next week,” he said.

Meanwhile, progressives have fumed at Democrats for using months of time trying to negotiate a bipartisan deal instead of focusing on moving everything on their own. Schumer has vowed to approve a budget resolution, which greenlights the larger package, before leaving for a weeks-long summer break, but passage of the $3.5 trillion spending bill will wait until at least September.

Lauren Maunus, advocacy director for Sunrise Movement, called the bipartisan deal “pathetic” and “comically and terrifyingly small.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who voted to advance the bill over two initial hurdles, declined to say if he would vote for it on final passage.

“We still have a work in progress here on amendments,” he said.

Democrats say they are expecting potential amendments from their side of the aisle on broadband and drinking water language.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who wants full funding included for his water infrastructure bill that previously passed the Senate and money for fixing lead pipe water contamination, said he had been talking with leadership and Senate Democrats more broadly.

“There are a couple of areas where I’ve consistently said we need to do more,” Carper said, adding that he was also “very much interested in the pay-fors.”

But senators are skeptical about how many, if any, changes get added to the bipartisan deal. In the House, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has been pushing for the Senate to enter negotiations to include provisions from his own House-passed infrastructure bill.

But even Carper, who has been in frequent contact with DeFazio, acknowledged that there was unlikely to be a conference committee.

“In a perfect world, we would want to go to conference. ... I don’t think that’s going to be an option,” Carper said, but added that he and DeFazio would have a “dialogue.”

Members of the bipartisan group say they have a general understanding that they will vote against potential amendments, which they might otherwise support, if it threatens the ability of the underlying bill to get the 60 votes needed to ultimately pass. And they are hoping the upcoming budget resolution, where any senator can force a vote, will take some of the pressure off the debate on their bill.

“We don’t want to change the fundamental issues,” Portman said.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who has been supportive of the proposal, added that the group should “maintain the integrity” of the bipartisan deal.

“I’m a big believer in the open amendment process,” he said. “I think what’s important for those of us who have agreed to the specific deal, that we maintain the integrity of it, unless somebody comes out with something that we all mutually agree makes it better.”

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