Republicans on Wednesday are expected to defeat a motion filed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to begin debate on a bipartisan infrastructure bill, arguing the legislation needs more work before it’s ready for action.
Democrats are suspicious that GOP colleagues are running out the clock and want to put pressure on them to speed up work on a bipartisan infrastructure framework.
A group of centrist Republicans in the bipartisan negotiating group called on Schumer Tuesday to postpone the vote to begin consideration of their legislation until Monday, at which point they say there would be enough Republican support to take up the bill, which is estimated to cost $1.2 trillion over eight years or $973 billion over five.
“I would like to see the leader delay the vote until Monday. We’re making significant progress, but we need more time,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) Tuesday. “There’s no magic in having the vote [Wednesday] and so if it were delayed until Monday, I think we could continue our work and present to our colleagues a more complete bill.”
Republican members of the bipartisan group were working Tuesday afternoon on a letter to Schumer informing him that not a single Republican will vote to proceed to the measure Wednesday but that the chances of successfully taking up legislation are much better if he waits a few days.
Schumer is showing no signs of backing off, setting up a showdown on the Senate floor.
“They’ve been working on this bipartisan framework for more than a month already and it’s time to begin the debate,” he announced after the weekly Democratic caucus lunch Tuesday.
The motion to begin debate on the bipartisan infrastructure bill needs 60 votes to pass.
Schumer stressed the vote would only be on a shell bill from the House that could be amended at a later date with whatever deal the bipartisan group of senators reach with senior White House officials.
“No one’s voting on anything except to move forward on a bipartisan bill [Wednesday]. This is not a deadline that determines every final detail of the bill, not close to it. It’s not an attempt to jam anyone. It’s just a vote on whether senators are ready to begin debating the issue,” he explained.
The White House, meanwhile, has deferred to Schumer on the timing of votes and Senate procedure.
Schumer said his deadline has lit a fire under the negotiators.
“Even Republicans will tell you, since I set a deadline they’re moving much more quickly in the negotiations than they were before,” he declared. “We’ve waited a month; it’s time to move forward.”
He noted if senators agree to start the debate, there will be many opportunities for the bipartisan group to make their bill the base of the legislation or add key components of their deal to the legislation.
Republicans, however, are accusing Schumer of rushing the process.
“I think there’s a unanimous point of view that we shouldn’t vote on the motion to proceed until people know what the summary is of the bill. They haven’t seen the numbers, they haven’t seen the pay-fors,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a member of the bipartisan group, said after the Senate Republican Conference met for lunch Tuesday.
Romney said while the handful of Republicans in the bipartisan group are familiar with the details, most members of his conference need time to review them.
“Wednesday is premature, but I think Monday would be sufficient time to get all the remaining issues solved and socialize the legislation with our colleagues so they know how they want to vote,” he said.
Romney said forcing an early vote on the bill is “setting ourselves up for failure.”
Collins said if Schumer insists on holding the vote Wednesday “it’s certainly not helpful.”
Senators say they don’t know for sure what’s Schumer’s next step if the vote to proceed to the bipartisan bill fails.
The Democratic leader has said he wants to pass both the bipartisan bill and a Senate budget resolution, which would set up a reconciliation package under which Democrats could pass an even bigger spending bill, before the August recess.
Some Democrats are urging Schumer to pivot immediately to the budget resolution if Republicans block the start of debate on a bipartisan measure.
“I think we might start to alter the order and maybe we move reconciliation faster than the bipartisan deal, but I think we should still encourage folks to reach the bipartisan deal,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “That would be my suggestion, to alter the order.”
Several Democratic senators are concerned if the budget debate waits until after the August recess, opponents to President Biden’s infrastructure and tax reform agenda will use the break to whip up public opposition. Conservative groups used the August recess in 2009 to tilt public opinion against Democrats’ health care reform proposals.
But Schumer indicated to colleagues at Tuesday’s caucus lunch that he’s more inclined to give the bipartisan group a few more days before moving to the budget debate.
“I think Schumer will give them a second chance. He said he might,” said a Democratic senator who attended the lunch.
A second senator said Schumer told the caucus that the Senate could consider additional votes to proceed on several infrastructure bills that passed with strong bipartisan support, such as the highway legislation, which passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee 20-0, or the rail safety measure that passed the Senate Commerce Committee, 25-3.
A Senate Democratic aide said the leader essentially reiterated the message he delivered to colleagues on the Senate floor Monday, when he said voting to begin debate on a House shell bill would allow the Senate to consider four infrastructure bills that passed with strong bipartisan support out of the committees of jurisdiction.
Republican negotiators say they have a good chance to finish up work on the legislation by week’s end, which would make it ready for a vote to begin debate on Monday. Republican and Democratic centrists say about a half-dozen issues remain outstanding.
They say there’s general agreement on what funding sources should be included in the legislation but that they need to wait for estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation on how much revenue or savings those proposals will generate.
They also need to address concerns raised by Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), the senior Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, over tens of billions of dollars in new funding for public transit.
Toomey says the deal’s allocation for mass transit, which falls squarely in his committee’s jurisdiction, would substantially alter the traditional formula for divvying up highway and transit funding.
“It’s without precedent in terms of the generosity for transit and departs from all of the pre-COVID traditions,” Toomey said, noting that a “staggering” $40 billion in emergency COVID-19 funding for transit systems remains unspent.
He called for his committee to be more involved in the process, calling the ad hoc bipartisan negotiations “not an optimal arrangement.”
“I think the optimal approach here is to have a mark-up in the Banking Committee,” he said. “The way we used to legislate would be a good procedural way forward.”
Negotiators also need to reach final agreement on how much unspent funding allocated in past COVID-19 relief packages should be repurposed to offset the cost of new infrastructure spending. Aside from that, the funding sources are mostly settled.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a member of the bipartisan group, said Tuesday “the pay-fors are done.”
“I think there’s maybe a little negotiation on some rescission [of] funds on CARES Act funding, but I think we’re in a position to get this thing done,” he said. “I think everybody is on the same page.”
Tester said he thinks the White House will go along with a proposal to repeal a Trump administration rule on directing Medicare prescription drug rebates to patients instead of insurance companies, which is projected to help lower premiums and save the government money.