$1 Trillion Infrastructure Deal Scales Senate Hurdle With Bipartisan Vote

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The vote was a breakthrough after weeks of wrangling among White House officials and senators in both parties, clearing the way for action on a top priority for President Biden.

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah and other Republicans who negotiated the deal urged their colleagues to support a measure they said would provide badly needed funding for infrastructure projects.
Credit...T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Emily CochraneJim Tankersley

July 28, 2021, 8:14 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted on Wednesday to take up a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that would make far-reaching investments in the nation’s public works system, as Republicans joined Democrats in clearing the way for action on a crucial piece of President Biden’s agenda.

The 67-to-32 vote, which included 17 Republicans in favor, came just hours after centrist senators in both parties and the White House reached a long-sought compromise on the bill, which would provide about $550 billion in new federal money for roads, bridges, rail, transit, water and other physical infrastructure programs.

Among those in support of moving forward was Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader and a longtime foil of major legislation pushed by Democratic presidents. Mr. McConnell’s backing signaled that his party was — at least for now — open to teaming with Democrats to enact the plan.

The deal still faces several obstacles to becoming law, including being turned into formal legislative text and clearing final votes in the closely divided Senate and House. But the vote was a victory for a president who has long promised to break through the partisan gridlock gripping Congress and accomplish big things supported by members of both political parties.

If enacted, the measure would be the largest infusion of federal money into the public works system in more than a decade.

The compromise, which was still being written on Wednesday, includes $110 billion for roads, bridges and major projects; $66 billion for passenger and freight rail; $39 billion for public transit; $65 billion for broadband; $17 billion for ports and waterways; and $46 billion to help states and cities prepare for droughts, wildfires, flooding and other consequences of climate change, according to a White House official who detailed it on the condition of anonymity.

In a lengthy statement, Mr. Biden hailed the deal as “the most significant long-term investment in our infrastructure and competitiveness in nearly a century.”

He also framed it as vindication of his belief in bipartisanship.

“Neither side got everything they wanted in this deal,” Mr. Biden said. “But that’s what it means to compromise and forge consensus — the heart of democracy. As the deal goes to the entire Senate, there is still plenty of work ahead to bring this home. There will be disagreements to resolve and more compromise to forge along the way.”

That was evident on Wednesday even as the president and senators in both parties cheered their agreement. In negotiating it, Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders were forced to agree to concessions, accepting less money for public transit and clean energy projects than they had wanted, including for some electric vehicle charging stations, and abandoning their push for additional funding for tax enforcement at the I.R.S.

The changes — and the omission of some of their highest priorities — rankled progressives in both chambers, with some threatening to oppose the bill unless it was modified.

“From what we have heard, having seen no text, this bill is going to be status quo, 1950s policy with a little tiny add-on,” said Representative Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“If it’s what I think it is,” he added, “I will be opposed.”

Still, the bipartisan compromise was a crucial component of Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion economic agenda, which Democrats plan to pair with a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint that would provide additional spending for climate, health care and education, to be muscled through Congress over Republican objections.

The vote to move forward with the infrastructure bill came after weeks of haggling by a bipartisan group of senators and White House officials to translate an outline they agreed on late last month into legislation. Just last week, Senate Republicans had unanimously blocked consideration of the plan, saying there were too many unresolved disputes. But by Wednesday, after several days of frenzied talks and late-night phone calls and texts among senators and White House officials, the negotiators announced they were ready to proceed.

“We look forward to moving ahead, and having the opportunity to have a healthy debate here in the chamber regarding an incredibly important project for the American people,” said Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio and a lead negotiator.

Many of the bill’s spending provisions remain unchanged from the original agreement. But it appeared that it pared spending in a few areas, including reducing money for public transit to $39 billion from $49 billion, and eliminating a $20 billion “infrastructure bank” that was meant to catalyze private investment in large projects. Negotiators were unable to agree on the structure of the bank and terms of its financing authority, so they removed it altogether.

The loss of the infrastructure bank appeared to cut in half the funding for electric vehicle charging stations that administration officials had said was included in the original agreement, jeopardizing Mr. Biden’s promise to create a network of 500,000 charging stations nationwide.

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Credit...Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The new agreement also included significant changes to how the infrastructure spending will be paid for, after Republicans resisted supporting a pillar of the original framework: increased revenues from an I.R.S. crackdown on tax cheats, which was to have supplied nearly one-fifth of the funding for the plan.

In place of those lost revenues, negotiators agreed to repurpose more than $250 billion from previous pandemic aid legislation, including $50 billion from expanded unemployment benefits that have been canceled prematurely this summer by two dozen Republican governors, according to a fact sheet reviewed by The New York Times. That is more than double the repurposed money in the original deal.

The new agreement would save $50 billion by delaying a Medicare rebate rule passed under President Donald J. Trump and raise nearly $30 billion by applying tax information reporting requirements to cryptocurrency. It also proposes to recoup $50 billion in fraudulently paid unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

Fiscal hawks were quick to dismiss some of those financing mechanisms as overly optimistic or accounting gimmicks, and warned that the agreement would add to the federal budget deficit over time. But business groups and some moderates in Washington quickly praised the deal.

Jack Howard, the senior vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has worked for months to broker a bipartisan deal that does not include a corporate tax increase, said the spending in the agreement “will provide enormous benefits for the American people and the economy.”

“Our nation has been waiting for infrastructure modernization for over a decade,” he said, “and this is a critical step in the process.”

During a lunch on Wednesday, the Republicans who spearheaded the deal passed out binders containing a summary of what could be a 1,000-page bill. The group of 10 core negotiators ultimately held a celebratory news conference where they thanked their colleagues in both parties for their support.

“It’s not perfect but it’s, I think, in a good place,” said Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, who voted in favor of taking up the bill.

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Credit...T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

After the vote Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, expressed optimism that the Senate would be able to pass not just the bipartisan infrastructure package, but the $3.5 trillion budget blueprint needed to unlock the far more expansive reconciliation package to carry the remainder of Mr. Biden’s agenda.

“My goal remains to pass both a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a budget resolution during this work period — both,” Mr. Schumer said, warning of “long nights” and weekend sessions. “We are going to get the job done, and we are on track.”

Democrats still must maneuver the bill through the evenly divided Senate, maintaining the support of all 50 Democrats and independents and at least 10 Republicans. That could take at least a week, particularly if Republicans opposed to it opt to slow the process. Should the measure clear the Senate, it would also have to pass the House, where some liberal Democrats have balked at the emerging details.

But Republicans who negotiated the deal urged their colleagues to support a measure they said would provide badly needed funding for infrastructure projects across the country.

“I am amazed that there are some who oppose this, just because they think that if you ever get anything done somehow it’s a sign of weakness,” said Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has repeatedly said she will not take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the House until the far more ambitious $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill passes the Senate.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the lead Democratic negotiator of the infrastructure deal and a key moderate vote, issued a statement on Wednesday saying that she did not support a plan that costly, though she would not seek to block it. Those comments prompted multiple liberals in the House to threaten to reject the bipartisan agreement she helped negotiate, underscoring the fragility of the compromise.

“Good luck tanking your own party’s investment on childcare, climate action, and infrastructure while presuming you’ll survive a 3 vote House margin,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, wrote in a tweet. “Especially after choosing to exclude members of color from negotiations and calling that a ‘bipartisan accomplishment.’”

Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Fandos, Coral Davenport, Catie Edmondson and Lisa Friedman.

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