The United States Senate has moved closer to passing a $1 trillion infrastructure package after lawmakers from both parties came together and voted to clear a key procedural hurdle, but the action soon stalled out as opponents tried to slow the rush to approve one of President Joe Biden’s top priorities.
The measure would provide a massive injection of federal money for a range of public works programmes, from roads and bridges to broadband internet access, drinking water and others.
In a rare stroke of bipartisanship, Republicans joined Democrats during the weekend session on Saturday to overcome the 60-vote threshold needed to advance the measure towards final votes. The vote was 67-27.
If approved, the bill would go to the House of Representatives.
But momentum dragged as opponents refused to yield 30 hours of required debate before the next procedural vote, which could delay swift passage of the package and result in a days-long slog.
“We can get this done the easy way or the hard way,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat, New York) said as the Senate opened. He said he would keep senators in session until they finished the bill and sent it to the House.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the first of Biden’s two infrastructure packages. The administration and congressional leaders will soon turn to a second, larger package that is expected to draw only Democratic support.
Schumer has vowed to keep senators in session until they finish up the bipartisan bill and start the initial votes on the next big package.
Vice President Kamala Harris arrived on Capitol Hill for meetings on the legislation, which Biden said offered a potentially “historic investment”, on par with the building of the transcontinental railway or interstate highway system.
Overcoming the 60-vote hurdle was a sign that the tenuous alliance between Republicans and Democrats could hold on the public works package. At least 10 Republicans had to join all Democrats to advance the measure past a filibuster, setting up more votes later.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has so far allowed the bill to progress, and his vote – “yes” – was closely watched. “This is a compromise,” he said before the vote.
For senators who have been slogging through debate – and months of give-and-take negotiations – the bill is a chance not only to send federal dollars to their states, but also to show the country that Congress can work together in a bipartisan way to solve problems.
Republican Senator from Alaska Lisa Murkowski said the needs in her state were obvious – including money for water systems in remote villages without running taps for handwashing during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as one of the negotiators, she also wants to demonstrate that lawmakers can unite.
“I’m really worried that everybody believes that we’re as dysfunctional as we appear to be, and so to prove otherwise, it’s kind of important,” she said. “The Senate needs some demonstrated acts of bipartisanship.”
Congress is under pressure to make gains on the president’s infrastructure priorities – first with the bipartisan bill and then Democrats’ more sweeping $3.5 trillion budget blueprint they plan to shoulder on their own.
If senators wrap up work on the bipartisan bill, they will immediately turn to the much more partisan undertaking on Biden’s agenda, the outline for the $3.5 trillion proposal. That plan would provide billions in what the White House calls human infrastructure – childcare support, home healthcare, education and other expenditures that are Democratic priorities that Republicans have pledged to reject. Debate on that will extend into the fall.
For some Republicans, that back-to-back voting schedule is what they are trying to delay, hoping to slow or halt what appears to be a forward march by Democrats to achieve the president’s infrastructure goals.
Former President Donald Trump weighed in on Saturday with a statement criticising Biden, senators of both parties and the bill itself, though it is not clear whether Trump’s views hold sway over the lawmakers.
Senators have found much to like in the bill, even though it does not fully satisfy liberals, who view it as too small, or conservatives, who find it too large. It would provide federal money for projects many states and cities could not afford on their own.
Senators had hoped to wrap up the 2,700-page bipartisan bill during the week. But the Senate ground to a halt with new problems late in the week as members wanted to consider more amendments and Republican opponents objected to an expedited process.
An analysis of the bill from the Congressional Budget Office drew concerns, particularly from Republicans. It concluded that the legislation would increase deficits by about $256bn over the next decade.
But the bill’s backers argued that the budget office was unable to take into account certain revenue streams – including from future economic growth. An additional analysis released on Saturday by the budget office suggested infrastructure spending overall could boost productivity and lower the ultimate costs.
Paying for the package has been a pressure point throughout the months-long slog of negotiations after Democrats objected to an increase in the gas tax paid at the pump and Republicans resisted a plan to bolster the IRS to go after tax scofflaws.
Unlike Biden’s bigger $3.5 trillion package, which would be paid for by higher tax rates for corporations and the wealthy, the bipartisan package is funded by repurposing other money, including untapped COVID-19 aid, and other spending cuts and revenue streams.
Senators have spent the past week processing nearly two dozen amendments to the bipartisan package, with more possible on Saturday. So far, none has substantially changed the framework of the public works package.
The House is in recess and is expected to consider both Biden infrastructure packages when it returns in September.