Senate Passes $1 Trillion Infrastructure Bill, Handing Biden a Bipartisan Win

Source: By Emily Cochrane, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The approval came after months of negotiations and despite deficit concerns, reflecting an appetite in both parties for the long-awaited spending package.

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The Senate approved a $1 trillion package to improve and modernize the nation’s aging infrastructure through a bipartisan 69 to 30 vote. The legislation now must pass the House.Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Senate gave overwhelming bipartisan approval to a $1 trillion infrastructure bill on Tuesday to rebuild the nation’s deteriorating roads and bridges and fund new climate resilience and broadband initiatives, delivering a key component of President Biden’s agenda.

The legislation would be the largest infusion of federal investment into infrastructure projects in more than a decade, touching nearly every facet of the American economy and fortifying the nation’s response to the warming of the planet.

It would provide historic levels of funding for the modernization of the nation’s power grid and projects to better manage climate risks, as well as pour hundreds of billions of dollars into the repair and replacement of aging public works projects.

The vote, 69-30, was uncommonly bipartisan; the yes votes included Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, and 18 other Republicans who shrugged off increasingly shrill efforts by former President Donald Trump to derail it.

But the measure now faces a potentially rocky and time-consuming path in the House, where the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the nearly 100-member Progressive Caucus, have said they will not vote on it unless and until the Senate passes a separate, even more ambitious $3.5 trillion social policy bill this fall.

The success of the infrastructure bill, painstakingly negotiated largely by a group of Republican and Democratic senators in consultation with White House officials, is a vindication of Mr. Biden’s belief that a bipartisan compromise was possible on a priority that has long been shared by both parties — even at a moment of deep political division. Yet Democrats will immediately take up a second social policy package, over Republican opposition, to fulfill the remainder of their spending priorities.

To win the compromise, Democrats and Mr. Biden — who had initially proposed a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan — had to make major concessions. The package includes far less funding than they had wanted for lead pipe replacement, transit and clean energy projects, among others. But the result was passage of a crucial component of the president’s far-reaching, $4 trillion economic agenda.

“This is what it looks like when elected leaders take a step toward healing our country’s divisions rather than feeding those very divisions,” Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona and a key negotiator, said before the bill’s passage.

Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, promised “it will be a lasting bipartisan achievement to help the people we represent — it’s going to improve the lives of all Americans.”

The bill would direct $550 billion in new federal spending toward infrastructure projects across the country, and renew and revamp existing programs set to expire at the end of September. It would provide $65 billion to expand high-speed internet access; $110 billion for roads, bridges and other projects; $25 billion for airports; and the most funding for Amtrak since the passenger rail service was founded in 1971.

To finance that spending, analysts said the government would most likely have to borrow heavily. On Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office said the legislation would add $256 billion to the deficit over 10 years, contradicting the claims of its authors that their bill would be fully paid for.

Children playing basketball near the John E. Amos coal-fired power plant in Poca, W.Va. The bill would provide historic levels of funding for the modernization of the nation’s power grid and projects to better manage climate risks.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times

That is nearly half of the new spending in the legislation, which includes a patchwork of measures purported to raise revenue to pay for it, including repurposing unspent pandemic relief funds, more tightly regulating cryptocurrency and delaying implementation of a Trump-era rule that would change the way drug companies can offer discounts to health plans for Medicare patients.

Fiscal watchdogs had warned that senators were using budgetary gimmicks to obscure the true cost of their agreement, and the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate appeared to confirm that suspicion, prompting one Republican, Senator Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, to scuttle a bipartisan attempt to expedite its passage.

“There’s absolutely no reason for rushing this process and attempting to eliminate scrutiny of the bill, other than the Democrats’ completely artificial, self-imposed and politically-driven timeline,” Mr. Hagerty declared in a speech on Saturday.

But after days of voting on changes to the bill, which is more than 2,000 pages, senators in both parties shrugged at the deficit figures and came together to push through a package that Republicans and Democrats have long championed.

For Democrats, passage of the bill opened the way for consideration of their ambitious, $3.5 trillion budget plan, which is expected to be packed with policies to address climate change, health, education and paid leave. It will also include tax increases — and it is expected to generate unanimous Republican opposition.

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, has said he intends to move immediately to take up the budget blueprint, unveiled on Monday, that would put Congress on track to pass that larger package unilaterally, using a process known as reconciliation that shields it from a filibuster.

The infrastructure legislation faces a tricky path in the House, where Ms. Pelosi has repeatedly said she will not take it up until the Senate clears the reconciliation bill.

The ultimatum has prompted mixed reactions in the House, as eight moderate Democrats, including Jared Golden of Maine and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, circulated a letter to Ms. Pelosi calling for a swift vote on the bipartisan deal.

But leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in a letter to Ms. Pelosi, warned that a majority of its 96 members confirmed they would withhold their support for the legislation until the second, far more expansive package cleared the reconciliation process in the Senate.

“Whatever you can achieve in a bipartisan way — bravo, we salute it,” Ms. Pelosi said on Friday. “But at the same time, we’re not going forward with leaving people behind.”

The Senate vote capped a grueling, monthslong negotiation between the Biden administration and senators in both parties over the scope and size of an infrastructure bill. After an abbreviated effort to work with Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, on a plan that could win backing from G.O.P. leaders, Mr. Biden turned his focus to a group of 10 moderate Republicans and Democrats who had helped strike the compromise that paved the way for a postelection pandemic relief package in December.

The senators and top White House officials spent weeks debating how to structure and finance the legislation over late-night meals, virtual meetings and phone calls. Even after the group triumphantly announced an outline in June, it took a month to translate that framework into legislation. Along the way, the effort appeared on the brink of collapse, after it failed a test vote in the Senate and former President Donald J. Trump sniped at it from the sidelines, trying to persuade Republicans that they would pay a steep political price for supporting it.

Biden’s 2022 Budget

The 2022 fiscal year for the federal government begins on October 1, and President Biden has revealed what he’d like to spend, starting then. But any spending requires approval from both chambers of Congress. Here’s what the plan includes:

    • Ambitious total spending: President Biden would like the federal government to spend $6 trillion in the 2022 fiscal year, and for total spending to rise to $8.2 trillion by 2031. That would take the United States to its highest sustained levels of federal spending since World War II, while running deficits above $1.3 trillion through the next decade.
    • Infrastructure plan: The budget outlines the president’s desired first year of investment in his American Jobs Plan, which seeks to fund improvements to roads, bridges, public transit and more with a total of $2.3 trillion over eight years.
    • Families plan: The budget also addresses the other major spending proposal Biden has already rolled out, his American Families Plan, aimed at bolstering the United States’ social safety net by expanding access to education, reducing the cost of child care and supporting women in the work force.
    • Mandatory programs: As usual, mandatory spending on programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare make up a significant portion of the proposed budget. They are growing as America’s population ages.
    • Discretionary spending: Funding for the individual budgets of the agencies and programs under the executive branch would reach around $1.5 trillion in 2022, a 16 percent increase from the previous budget.
    • How Biden would pay for it: The president would largely fund his agenda by raising taxes on corporations and high earners, which would begin to shrink budget deficits in the 2030s. Administration officials have said tax increases would fully offset the jobs and families plans over the course of 15 years, which the budget request backs up. In the meantime, the budget deficit would remain above $1.3 trillion each year.

“When we have more people on both sides of the aisle who want to do things in a partisan way, as opposed to figuring out how we can work together, I don’t think that’s in the best interests of the country,” Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, one of the key negotiators, said in an interview. “It was really important for the continued relationships within the Senate that are so important to getting things done.”

Negotiators were particularly bedeviled by the question of how to pay for their plan. Republicans declared that they would not support any legislation that raised taxes and rejected a proposal to beef up I.R.S. enforcement against tax cheats, and Democrats ruled out raising user fees for drivers. The Congressional Budget Office’s deficit estimate also gave many Republicans a reason to reject the legislation.

Eager to address a multibillion-dollar infrastructure backlog, lawmakers in both parties stuffed the package with myriad priorities and projects, including the reconstruction of an Alaskan highway, a ban on vaping on Amtrak and $1 billion for the restoration of the Great Lakes. The legislation also includes $24 million for restoration of the San Francisco Bay, $106 million for the Long Island Sound and $238 million for the Chesapeake Bay.

The bill also carries major policy changes. It amounts to a tacit, bipartisan acknowledgment that the country is ill prepared for a worsening climate. Billions of dollars would be invested in projects to better protect homes from weather calamities, move vulnerable communities out of harm’s way and support new approaches to countering climate change.

It also includes $73 billion to update the nation’s electricity grid so it can carry more renewable energy, $7.5 billion to construct electric vehicle charging stations, $17.5 billion for clean buses and ferries and $15 billion for removing lead pipes.

The agreement targets critical resources toward underserved communities, although not as much as Mr. Biden had requested. It would direct $1 billion over five years — slightly more than half of it in new federal funding — to a program to help reconnect communities divided by highway construction, as well as millions of dollars to help improve access to running water in tribal and Alaska Native communities.

It also includes money to restore lakes across the country, $66 billion in new funding for Amtrak and more funding for programs intended to provide safe commutes for pedestrians. It also creates a $350 million pilot program for projects that reduce collisions between vehicles and wildlife.

The bill dedicates an increasing amount each year for grants to clean up drinking water by removing lead-contaminated pipes and making other infrastructure upgrades. The legislation reserves at least $25 million per year for “small and disadvantaged communities.”

In the days before it passed, senators engaged in a last-ditch attempt to allow some exemptions to strict tax regulations that had been included in the original bill on cryptocurrency brokers, after pushback from senators in both parties. But without agreement on other amendments, negotiators ultimately failed to secure unanimous consent to make those changes.

Some lawmakers had pushed for the inclusion of specific district projects, known as earmarks, that senior House lawmakers spent months wrangling into their own separate infrastructure bill. The Senate did not formally accommodate those projects in the legislation.