WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats and Republicans banded together on Wednesday to advance a roughly $1 trillion proposal to improve the country’s aging infrastructure, overcoming months of political deadlock on one of President Joe Biden’s signature economic policy priorities.
The day of breakthroughs began with news of a deal, as a bipartisan bloc of 10 negotiators coalesced around a package to upgrade the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections. The announcement from some of the group’s leaders, including Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., capped off a series of frenetic talks that nearly collapsed amid behind-the-scenes battles about the new spending and how to pay for it.
With that once-elusive agreement finally in hand, the Senate hours later then took its first formal legislative step. Lawmakers voted 67-32 to put themselves on track to begin debating infrastructure reform this week, clearing the first of many hurdles toward adopting a proposal that the White House has described as historic.
The twin developments marked an early victory for lawmakers who have struggled for years to turn their shared enthusiasm for infrastructure into actual investments in the country’s inner-workings. Several past presidents had called for robust, new public-works spending to replace old pipes and fix cracked bridges, yet only on Wednesday did the Senate actually move toward delivering on those promises.
The news sparked jubilation at the White House, where Biden this spring put forward a roughly $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan funded largely through tax increases that Republicans swiftly rejected. But the administration’s top aides ultimately proved willing to be flexible in the months that followed in how they pursued some of the president’s priorities. Asked about the deal while traveling in Pennsylvania, Biden sounded a hopeful note, telling reporters: “I feel confident about it.”
Yet the progress still threatened to prove politically fragile in a debate that is only just beginning. Lawmakers must still draft their legislation, which had not been written by Wednesday evening, and calibrate it in a way to survive the narrowly divided Senate. The absence of actual legislative text troubled some Republicans, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who said in a speech on the chamber floor he could not vote to forge ahead Wednesday because the bill is “not ready.”
Lawmakers from both parties still have plenty of spending they would like to add to the package, and some harbor significant questions about its current price tag and its effect on the deficit. Their concerns could presage a series of efforts to tweak the bill that are sure to test Senate dealmakers and the durability of their bipartisan coalition, which even drew the early affirmative vote from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
For now, though, some of the Senate’s chief negotiators expressed early optimism about their prospects.
“It’s going to help with regards to our roads and our bridges and our ports and waterways, and also helps expand digital infrastructure, broadband,” Portman said at a news conference announcing the deal earlier Wednesday, adding: “It’s very popular.”
The infrastructure deal itself marks a fuller accounting of a blueprint Senate negotiators first outlined in June, after a first round of talks between the White House and the chamber’s top Republicans failed. The proposal essentially touches the whole of the U.S. economy, calling for roughly $1 trillion in spending — over half of which is new, with the rest coming from anticipated federal investments in highways and other roadways that must be adopted every few years by Congress.
The deal includes $40 billion in spending to fix bridges, for example, and $39 billion to modernize transit — a level of investment the White House on Wednesday called the largest ever in bus and transit systems. It also sets aside about $55 billion for water infrastructure, a sum the Biden administration said would replace every lead pipe in the United States. There’s another $65 billion to build out broadband Internet access to rural areas and help those who have access to the web afford their connections. And it calls for additional amounts to upgrade sea ports, airports and waterways in need of investment.
Some of the new investments specifically seek to combat climate change and address the consequences of a warming planet. The deal sets aside $7.5 billion to create a first-ever, national network of charging stations for electric vehicles, according to the White House, on top of billions of dollars in electric buses. And it specifies $73 billion to modernize the electric grid with an additional $21 billion to address issues including pollution, with the hope that sustained federal investment can help reduce emissions.
In proffering these investments, lawmakers on Wednesday insisted their plan is paid for in full, relying on a mix of changes to prescription drug rules and previously enacted coronavirus relief programs. Some of the savings come from ferreting out fraud, including in the country’s unemployment insurance program, with some funding from unrealized taxes from cryptocurrency, the White House said.
The financing mechanisms exclude tax increases on wealthy Americans or corporations, as well as greater enforcement of federal tax laws, ideas Biden and his Democratic allies sought but Republicans opposed. But it remains unclear if the funding provisions included instead would actually cover the full cost of the infrastructure deal, or if the package relies too much on potential budgetary gimmicks to obscure its deficit impact. Some Democrats and Republicans have maintained that infrastructure reforms cannot add to the deficit, even as its backers insist that the spending essentially pays for itself in the form of national economic gains.
The developments Wednesday keep the Senate on track to debate and potentially pass the infrastructure bill in the brief window before they depart for their planned August recess. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced the timeline earlier this summer, and in recent days, he has threatened to keep lawmakers in session late into the night and through the weekend to ensure they could sustain momentum and adopt a bill.
The infrastructure proposal represents a key piece of Democrats’ broader economic agenda, which also includes a second, roughly $3.5 trillion package that includes other categories of spending Biden supports. Democrats have said they expect the two proposals to move in tandem, as they seek to score a bipartisan victory for the president while still leveraging their narrow but powerful majorities to tackle long-standing policy priorities — including expanding Medicare, combating climate change and spending new sums to help children and families.
“I have not decided whether I will vote for final passage,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the leader of the chamber’s top budget panel, before casting his vote in favor of proceeding. “But I do know this: At the end of the day, two pieces of legislation, the bipartisan bill and the [budget] bill, have got to pass the House and Senate. It is my absolute conviction that you’re not going to have a bipartisan bill unless you have a [budget] bill of $3.5 trillion.”
The budget package could come as soon as next week, Sanders said, stressing it has the 50 votes required for passage. Yet a new wrinkle emerged Wednesday, as Sen. Sinema — one of the architects of the public-works spending deal — said she would not support as much as $3.5 trillion in spending. Sinema said she would only vote to begin the process known as reconciliation, which will allow Democrats to bypass what is likely to be overwhelming GOP opposition to their plans.
Republicans reaffirmed that opposition on Wednesday, blasting Democrats for their still-forming reconciliation package. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, one of the chief architects of the infrastructure deal, compared the bipartisan deal he helped broker with the $3.5 trillion proposal Democrats plan to push.
“One I love, this bill — the other, I can’t stand,” he said.
The announcement of a deal Wednesday marked only the latest twist in tense Senate talks that at times have teetered on the precipice of collapse. Only a week ago, Republicans voted unanimously to block the Senate from even starting debate on the bill, saying they were uncomfortable with proceeding given the scope of disagreements that remained. But lawmakers kept huddling in late-night meetings and hours-long Zoom calls, leaving some negotiators impatient at first — but pleased with the proposal they outlined on Wednesday.
“This has taken a long time, longer than any of us expected,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, one of the deal’s negotiators. “I think the country is yearning to see Congress actually function.”