Key Senate Democrats and Republicans appear set to clinch a $1 trillion infrastructure deal

Source: By Tony Romm, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Next vote could come as soon as Wednesday. Portman, Sinema each say all significant disagreements have been resolved around roughly $1 trillion package

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, walk out after a meeting with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to announce an agreement on an infrastructure bill on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, July 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Senate Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday appeared to clinch a deal that would invest roughly $1 trillion into the nation’s infrastructure, capping off weeks of intense, nearly ill-fated negotiations over one of President Biden’s top economic priorities.

The new agreement — announced separately by two of its lead negotiators, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — puts to paper the policy specifics behind an outline that a bipartisan bloc released earlier this June to improve the country’s roads, railways, pipes, ports and Internet connections.

Brokering the accord required lawmakers to make some potentially significant changes to their original blueprint, which ultimately lowered the amount of new spending in the infrastructure package to $550 billion from $579 billion as announced last month. But Portman said that the group had resolved all their remaining major policy issues after haggling between lawmakers and the White House that had stretched late into Tuesday night.

Speaking later to reporters, Sinema added: “We’ve got a deal.”

With the potential compromise in hand, Senate negotiators set about briefing their respective parties’ lawmakers during lunches on Wednesday afternoon, hoping to build a filibuster-proof majority that would allow them to start debating the measure as soon as Wednesday. That support seemed solid enough by the afternoon, even as some Democrats and Republicans raised early reservations with the deal as they understood it.

The political breakthrough appeared to put the Senate one step closer to delivering on Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) plans to pass the package before the August recess. Democrats and Republicans alike said they would be open to beginning the debate, even though some cautioned they had not yet seen any actual text of the infrastructure plan.

Asked about the developments while traveling in Pennsylvania, President Biden similarly sounded a note of optimism, telling reporters: “I feel confident about it.”

Opening Senate debate, however, only marks the beginning of the battle over a massive measure that would touch nearly every part of the economy. To shepherd it through the Senate, Democratic leaders still must ensure the measure remains attractive to those in their own party as well as Republicans, without whom they do not have the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

Along the way, they must still grapple with thorny, lingering questions, including growing doubts among some GOP lawmakers that the package isn’t paid for in full — despite its authors’ contentions.

The infrastructure proposal also is only one component of Biden’s broader economic agenda, and Democrats plan to try to move a second, roughly $3.5 trillion package essentially in tandem. Republicans overwhelmingly oppose that second tranche of spending.

Lawmakers first announced their infrastructure blueprint with the White House in June, which called for about $1.2 trillion in spending over eight years. Roughly $579 billion of that total price tag had constituted new spending to address roads, highways, bridges, pipes, ports, internet connections and other infrastructure. The rest would have come from planned or anticipated federal investments, including money set aside for the nation’s highways that Congress must reauthorize every few years.

In negotiations, however, Democrats and Republicans clashed considerably over rules that would require contractors that receive federal funds to pay prevailing wages to workers. These so-called Davis-Bacon rules proved so insurmountable that lawmakers ultimately scrapped one of their ideas to commission an infrastructure bank, according to two people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to describe a plan that is not yet public. That ultimately lowered the amount of new spending to about $550 billion.

Lawmakers are expected to pay for the package through a wide array of provisions. They have endorsed recovering money from states that prematurely canceled their participation in a stimulus program that helped unemployed Americans obtain higher benefits, for example, as well as new measures to combat fraud in jobless programs. Other savings are expected to come from changes to federal prescription-drug rules, according to the sources.

The financing mechanisms exclude tax increases on wealthy Americans or corporations, or greater enforcement of federal tax laws, a series of ideas that Biden and his Democratic allies sought and Republicans opposed. But it remains unclear if the ideas included in their place would actually cover the full cost of the infrastructure deal, or if the package relies too much on potential budgetary gimmicks in an attempt to conceal its deficit impact.

The announcement of a deal marks the latest twist in tense Senate talks that at times appeared to be nearing collapse. Even as lawmakers from both parties called for greater investments in the country’s inner-workings, they repeatedly stumbled in translating their support into actual legislation — resulting in major battles over how, exactly, to improve the nation’s railways, water pipes and Internet connections, as well as the exact means by which to pay for it.

The disagreements ultimately scuttled an attempt last week to open debate on the infrastructure proposal, which Republicans blocked unanimously since the package hadn’t yet been finished. Negotiators including Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said Wednesday it still may take some time to craft an actual bill out of their current agreement.