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Senate clears key procedural hurdle on $1 trillion infrastructure deal as new disputes erupt

The 67-27 vote had been expected on the bipartisan measure, which proposes massive new investments in the country’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections

The Senate voted to advance a $1 trillion infrastructure package on Aug. 7, an important procedural step forward after months of negotiations. (Video: Reuters)
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Senate Democrats and Republicans cleared another key procedural hurdle Saturday on a roughly $1 trillion bill to improve the country’s infrastructure, inching the proposal closer to passage even as significant policy and spending disputes continued to divide the chamber.

The 67-27 vote had been expected on the bipartisan measure, which proposes massive new investments in the country’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections. But the successful outcome to stave off a filibuster quickly yielded to a partisan stalemate, after Republicans raised cost concerns about the bill — and Democrats appeared to threaten to block the GOP from tweaking the proposal further in response.

At the center of the new stalemate was GOP Sen. Bill Hagerty (Tenn.), who took to the floor Saturday to blast the public-works package for the potential that it could add to the federal deficit. He told reporters the shortfall left him “not inclined to expedite this process,” as Democrats had hoped to do, to adopt the full infrastructure bill perhaps by Saturday night.

The senator’s stance is crucial, since the chamber cannot forge ahead on its ambitious timeline without unanimity. But Hagerty said there is “no purpose in my view to allow an acceleration of that given what has happened here.”

Democrats, in response, appeared to play political hardball of their own. GOP Sen. John Thune (S.D.) said that Democratic lawmakers would not allow Republicans to offer amendments to the infrastructure bill unless they first could reach an agreement on expediting a final vote.

That essentially left the two sides at a temporary deadlock, leading Thune and others to acknowledge a swift resolution remains unlikely.

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The Senate still remains on track to conclude its work on infrastructure revisions, potentially by early next week. Even with a turbulent final few days, the successful series of votes would still send the measure to the House — and put Democrats one step closer to delivering on President Biden’s economic policy priorities.

But the stumbles threaten to delay Democrats’ other plans, including their goal to advance a roughly $3.5 trillion budget deal in the next few days. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he hopes to adopt both economic packages before adjourning the Senate for its summer recess, adding to the pressure on lawmakers this weekend.

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The tensions became apparent as soon as the Senate gaveled into session on Saturday, two days after lawmakers failed to wrap up the debate amid a flurry of late-night negotiations. Despite days of talks, Democrats and Republicans still had failed to reach an agreement on a final list of amendments that might appease both sides and allow them to move a step closer to adopting the new public-works spending.

With still no agreement on amendments in sight, Schumer issued the chamber a fresh political ultimatum, telling lawmakers: “We can get this done the easy way or the hard way.”

“In either case, the Senate will stay in session until we finish our work. It’s up to my Republican colleagues how long it takes,” he said.

Among the thorny issues is a fight among senators over one of the infrastructure proposal’s revenue-raising elements — an attempt to help the U.S. government discover and collect unpaid taxes on cryptocurrencies. At issue is whether the bill wrongly subjects too many entities to new federal reporting requirements.

Lawmakers including Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.), have sought to narrow the legislation out of a belief its mandate amounts to government overreach that could undermine digital currencies. Other lawmakers including Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) are working alongside the White House to tweak the bill to preserve its expansive spirit.

By midday Saturday, lawmakers continued to negotiate, with no sight of a solution in hand.

“I wish there would still be a compromise. But I think at this point we may be headed to a vote at some point tonight,” Warner said.

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A trio of Republican senators, meanwhile, continued to push for lawmakers to include a new $50 billion fund to improve infrastructure on U.S. military bases. And GOP Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.) said he still planned to press ahead with his own plan to try to repurpose a significant chunk of recent coronavirus relief aid to tackle infrastructure projects. His proposal targets a portion of funds set aside for state and local governments, passed as part of the $1.9 trillion relief law earlier this year.

Cornyn said he had worked out the idea with the backing of the Biden administration. But his amendment — like potentially dozens of others — remained in limbo since the Senate essentially needs the consent of every lawmaker to proceed.

“We’ve been working that over the weekend, and we continue to work [on] that,” Cornyn said.

Senate infrastructure deal would add hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit, CBO says

Other Republicans including Hagerty and Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) Saturday continued to swipe at the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package over its price tag. An official analysis from the Congressional Budget Office, which tracks the fiscal impact of legislation, estimated that the bill could add about $250 billion to the deficit.

The chief authors of the bipartisan deal, led by GOP Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), maintain that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would essentially pay for itself, given the broader economic gains that would be realized through new public-works spending. But their arguments have failed to resonate among Republicans who maintain that any new economic package should not add to the country’s deficit.

Some of these same GOP lawmakers had voted earlier in the debate against proceeding to the bill. The chamber forged ahead anyway on a bipartisan basis, and overcame a potential filibuster on Saturday — meaning the Republicans’ criticisms threaten only to delay, not scuttle, the Senate’s infrastructure ambitions.

In a sign of additional hurdles to come, though, Hagerty took to the floor after the vote to blast Democrats for trying to speed ahead in the debate.

“We waited weeks for the text of this legislation. Before the text even existed, the Democrat leader forced the Senate to vote on proceeding to it,” he said. “There’s absolutely no reason for rushing this process and attempting to limit scrutiny of this bill, other than the Democrats completely artificial self imposed and politically driven timeline. There’ll be more on that later.”