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Senate approves bipartisan, $1 trillion infrastructure bill, bringing major Biden goal one step closer

Democrats along with 19 Republicans approved the public-works package in a Tuesday morning vote, teeing it up soon for the House

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) speak at a news conference after a procedural vote for the bipartisan infrastructure framework on July 28. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Senate on Tuesday approved a roughly $1 trillion proposal to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections, advancing a historic burst in federal spending after years of failed attempts on Capitol Hill to invest anew in the country’s aging infrastructure.

The 69-to-30 vote follows weeks of turbulent private talks and fierce public debates that sometimes teetered on collapse, as the White House labored alongside Democrats and Republicans to achieve the sort of deal that had eluded them for years. Even though the proposal must still clear the House, where some Democrats recently have raised concerns the measure falls short of what they seek, the Senate outcome moves the bill one step closer to delivering President Biden his first major bipartisan win.

The package, nearly half of which constitutes new spending, would mark the most significant investment in the country’s inner workings since Congress marshaled a massive yet smaller rescue bill in the shadow of the Great Recession. It would combine lawmakers’ desire for immediate, urgently needed fixes to the country’s crumbling infrastructure with longer-term goals to combat challenges including climate change.

The bill proposes more than $110 billion to replace and repair roads, bridges and highways, and $66 billion to boost passenger and freight rail. That transit investment marks the most significant infusion of cash in the country’s railways since the creation of Amtrak about half a century ago, the White House said.

The U.S. Senate is expected to approve President Biden's $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill as early as Aug. 10. (Video: Reuters)

Which Biden priorities are included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill?

The infrastructure plan includes an additional $55 billion to address lingering issues in the U.S. water supply, such as an effort to replace every lead pipe in the nation. It allocates $65 billion to modernize the country’s power grid. And it devotes additional sums to rehabilitating waterways, improving airports and expanding broadband Internet service, particularly after a pandemic that forced Americans to conduct much of their lives online.

Lawmakers also agreed to authorize a significant tranche of funding to improve the environment and respond to the oft-deadly consequences of a fast-warming planet. The aid includes $7.5 billion to build out a national network of electric-vehicle charging stations, a major priority for Biden, who has worked to advance the next generation of emissions-friendly vehicles. And it apportions $47 billion to respond to wildfires, droughts, coastal erosion, heat waves and other climate crises that previously have wrought significant economic havoc nationwide.

“America’s often had the greatest prosperity and made the most progress when we invest in America itself,” Biden said Tuesday in a speech heralding its passage, stressing the investments ultimately would create jobs. “And that’s what this infrastructure bill does, with overwhelming support from the United States Senate.”

The White House helped craft the proposal alongside its chief congressional sponsors, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). The two for weeks shepherded a group of 10 lawmakers from both parties toward a compromise that could thread a needle — proffering the massive investments Biden initially sought without raising alarm among spending-wary Republicans.

The result is a bill that is less than the roughly $2.2 trillion American Jobs Plan that Biden put forward this spring, but one that every chamber Democrat along with 19 Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could still support. Democratic leaders have pledged to pursue the rest of their spending priorities as part of a second $3.5 trillion budget measure that GOP lawmakers oppose.

“It will improve the lives of all Americans,” Portman said in a floor speech over the weekend as lawmakers prepared to vote. “People do expect here in America, [with] this great economy we have, we should also be able to lead the world in infrastructure. But we don’t.”

Democrats release $3.5 trillion budget blueprint as Senate finishes infrastructure debate

Lawmakers jettisoned Biden’s plan to raise taxes on corporations to finance the new infrastructure investments, a nonstarter for Republicans, who strained to protect the tax cuts they instituted under President Donald Trump four years ago. Instead, their new legislative effort relies on a mix of odd measures — and potential budgetary gimmicks — to try to offset its cost. An official analysis of the bill by the Congressional Budget Office on Thursday found that lawmakers fell short, threatening to add more than $250 billion to the deficit over the next decade.

The sour score set the stage for one of the only significant fights over the bill. The spending concerns prompted Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) to block the chamber from adopting the infrastructure measure swiftly over the weekend, arguing that Democrats should not be able to expedite passage of a work product that he said had not been paid for in full.

“We must fight to preserve our American system and the American Dream, not — in a tornado of hurried legislative activity — seal its decline,” Hagerty said in a floor speech Saturday.

In doing so, Hagerty’s opposition opened a rift between Democrats and Republicans over potential amendments, because changes to the bill’s timeline as well as its text required some measure of unanimous consent. The standoff ultimately prevented senators from making at least one key change to the bill, targeting highly disputed rules that require cryptocurrency investors and brokers to report more information to the Internal Revenue Service for tax purposes.

Broadly, though, lawmakers managed to avoid the same intractable fights that have scuttled other legislative efforts this year to regulate guns, change voting laws and investigate the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. An earlier effort between the White House and top GOP senators to work out a compromise on infrastructure similarly fell short, illustrating the fragile victory that the Senate achieved in securing a bill with Biden’s backing.

At the same time, the moment of political accord proved to be short lived. Immediately, Senate Democrats pivoted to debate on their roughly $3.5 trillion budget that includes entire categories of spending that infrastructure negotiators omitted from their efforts. Republicans unanimously oppose the measure, which opens the door for Democrats to craft legislation that would expand Medicare, invest new sums to combat global warming and boost federal programs that aid parents and children.

Unlike their approach with the infrastructure bill, Democrats intend to advance the final bill through a process known as reconciliation, which means they need to attain a majority to proceed rather than the usual 60 votes. That requires the party’s lawmakers to stick together as they sort through thorny political issues, especially around how to pay for the package and how large it should be.

“Other parts of our infrastructure, not addressed by this bipartisan bill, still need focused attention and help,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday. He added that the Senate intends to adopt a budget that makes “generational transformation in these areas.”

Adding to the challenge, though, is that some House Democrats have emphasized in recent days that they aren’t willing to begin debating infrastructure until the Senate completes its work on the budget.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, reiterated that pledge this week on behalf of her powerful bloc of lawmakers, without whom House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) does not have the votes to proceed. In a recent interview, Jayapal stressed there are “not going to be votes for the bipartisan bill without votes for the reconciliation bill.”

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

The successful outcome on infrastructure Tuesday comes after months of bickering between lawmakers and the White House over Biden’s broader agenda, which he termed “Build Back Better,” dating back to the 2020 presidential campaign. Biden sought to deliver Washington its long-sought infrastructure ambitions after years of false starts under Trump, who could never coalesce Congress around a deal.

The legislative saga began in the spring, after Biden released his jobs plan and invited GOP lawmakers led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) to the White House for a series of ill-fated talks. The two sides after weeks of discussions could not agree on a total amount for infrastructure spending, much less how to pay for it, leading Biden in June to end negotiations amid public sniping between the two parties.

As that endeavor collapsed, a second group of 10 Democratic and Republican senators began to huddle on their own in pursuit of a deal. Lawmakers including Democratic Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and Mark R. Warner (Va.) and Republican Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Susan Collins (Maine) met alongside Biden’s top aides in a series of late-night sessions at the Capitol — often over bottles of wine — as they hammered out what became a blueprint for a $1.2 trillion outline released in late June.

The fraught process nearly fell apart only days after they announced their agreement. Biden had threatened at a public event that he could veto a bipartisan public-works deal unless Congress also adopted a larger budget that included his other spending priorities, including his roughly $1.9 trillion families plan. Republicans saw the comment as evidence the White House might not be negotiating in good faith, prompting the president to issue a corrective statement that eventually got the two sides back on track.

It still took weeks of haggling — and pressure applied from Schumer as well as the looming summer recess — before Democrats and Republicans could produce the 2,702-page bill they adopted Tuesday. They had warred in private over differences about how to spend the money in areas like transit and broadband, and how to pay for the spending. Republicans at one point even upended the talks over their concerns about a plan to raise funding for infrastructure through enhanced enforcement of federal tax laws, resulting in the proposal’s removal from the deal.

But when lawmakers gathered on the Senate floor to reveal their final product — delivering several speeches in early August touting the wide-ranging benefits of their proposed investments — they hailed their long-sought accomplishment as a sign the Senate is still a functional body.

“I know it has been difficult, and I know it has been long, and what I am proud to say is that is what our forefathers intended,” Sinema said.