The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats, Republicans race to prep $1 trillion infrastructure bill after dispute briefly snags vote

Senators negotiating the infrastructure bill speak to reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday. From left: Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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Two days after announcing a breakthrough on a $1 trillion deal to improve the nation’s infrastructure, Senate Democrats and Republicans on Friday once again found themselves quarreling behind the scenes as they raced against the clock to resolve their policy disputes and transform their ideas into a bill.

Some of the flare-ups were quickly resolved, but they still highlighted how the path to passage for new public-works spending continues to be littered with political land mines and opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict. Even if the measure is finalized and passed by the Senate, it faces a rocky reception in a House where liberals are already training their fire at the package.

Friday’s scramble came as lawmakers formally began debate on their proposed upgrades to the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections. Despite the outcome, the chamber briefly had to delay its vote amid new angst among lawmakers about the contents of the infrastructure package and initial concerns about Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s handling of the debate.

Some of the consternation came after Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his aides appeared to circulate more than 2,700 pages of draft legislative text that sought to encapsulate much of the agreement reached by a bipartisan bloc of 10 senators this week. Schumer for nearly two weeks had promised to use their deal as the basis for any legislative action. Yet his office’s draft text, obtained Friday morning by The Washington Post, still troubled Republican negotiators, who had been working to prepare their own infrastructure measure.

“Apparently [Schumer has] been working on a draft that would be unacceptable to all of us, of course,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), one of the chief authors of the deal. “The draft that’s the basis of our agreement is the draft that is being finalized by Senator Sinema and Senator Portman, and we’ve all been providing text to them, and that draft is nearing completion.”

The rumblings soon prompted the Senate’s two leading dealmakers on infrastructure — GOP Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — to issue a statement saying they were still working to finalize their legislation with the goal of releasing it later in the day. Portman later told reporters that he had secured a commitment from Schumer that their proposal would be the one that reached the Senate floor, ultimately paving the way for the Senate to take the next step in the debate by midday.

The squabble also exposed other still-simmering disputes among lawmakers over some of their agreed-upon buckets of new infrastructure funding, particularly aid to boost high-speed Internet access nationwide.

Under the deal, lawmakers hope to set aside $65 billion to expand broadband to hard-to-reach areas of the country while helping more Americans afford connectivity. But disagreements still surround the provision of that money, including lingering fears among Republicans that rural areas might be shortchanged and that the proposal could open the door for the federal government to regulate the price of Internet services.

Still another skirmish involved Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who felt she had not been properly consulted as the leader of the tech-focused Senate Commerce Committee, according to two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private talks. Cantwell has tried to tweak the legislation to include her own proposal to make it easier to deploy fiber Internet, according to a third Senate aide, who added that she and other Democrats are aiming to bolster affordability provisions in the bill.

Cantwell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Punchbowl News first reported the Democratic lawmaker’s concerns earlier Friday.

Many of the fights over infrastructure funding are in the process of being resolved, lawmakers insisted. But the battles nonetheless foreshadowed the tough political task ahead for the Senate’s fragile bipartisan coalition, which already has faced numerous brushes with collapse over the past month.

“There are going to be curveballs after curveballs,” acknowledged Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), one of the deal’s negotiators, as he headed to vote Friday. He said, however, that there is still “substantial agreement” on the issues.

The infrastructure proposal calls for replacing lead pipes, fixing highways and bridges, injecting massive new sums into aging transit systems, and proffering new investments to fight climate change. After weeks of talks, Portman, Sinema and their peers on Wednesday announced they had a final pact in hand, heralding the development as a sign that the Senate can still function in an era of intense partisanship.

Hours later, the Senate voted on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis on a procedural motion to start the debate over new infrastructure investments. Along with a second successful vote Friday, the action puts the chamber on track to try to advance the infrastructure proposal before its planned August recess. Schumer had outlined the timeline earlier this summer, pledging to tackle the public-works spending as well as another $3.5 trillion economic package sought by Democrats.