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Unfinished infrastructure deal faces uncertain vote

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 25, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

As the Senate hurtles toward what is expected to be an unsuccessful procedural vote on a mostly unwritten infrastructure measure Wednesday, bipartisan negotiators are narrowing down ways to pay for it, even as a disagreement on transit funding continues to be a sticking point.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has scheduled a Wednesday cloture vote on the motion to proceed to the vehicle for a $1.2 trillion, eight-year bipartisan infrastructure package that Republicans are threatening to oppose because the bill is not finalized.

Schumer insisted Tuesday the vote “is not a final deadline for legislative text” and “only a signal that the Senate is ready to get the process started.”

Republicans aren’t buying it.

Negotiators Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, on Tuesday urged Schumer to delay the vote until Monday so the group can iron out details and explain the plan to colleagues.

“There’s absolutely no reason why he has to have the vote tomorrow, and it does not advance the ball,” Collins said. “It does not achieve any goal except to alienate people.”

Schumer’s caucus, including the Democratic negotiators, is supporting his decision to proceed with the vote on Wednesday as scheduled.

“Sen. Schumer has to be able to control the schedule,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said.

Murphy is not in the negotiating group, but others who are agreed.

“I’m with Schumer on this plan,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va. “We’re not that far apart.”

What’s unknown is what happens if the Senate does not invoke cloture on the motion to proceed because Republicans are not ready to begin debate on an unfinished product.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said the next item on the Senate calendar after the bipartisan framework is the budget resolution that will set up the parameters for reconciliation if the bipartisan bill stalls. But going forward with that, he said, is “complicated” because the fates of the two measures are tied.

“Everything is connected,” he said.

Transit trouble

One outstanding issue negotiators wrestled with Tuesday was transit, with some Republicans arguing against the proposed $48.5 billion in new dollars for transit.

“We had a big discussion on that,” Manchin said Tuesday evening. “They’re working on that now, working that down.”

The bipartisan plan would provide an additional $48.5 billion in new spending toward transit, while roads, bridges and major projects would receive $110 billion, according to an early draft of the framework.

A 1982 law calls for an 80/20 split on surface transportation and transit projects. While the Highway Trust Fund reauthorization portion of the bill largely meets that goal, Republicans argue the mandatory spending in the bipartisan framework would blow up that equation, giving transit a share of just over 30 percent.

The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over transit, has been unable to reach a deal on its part of the surface transportation bill in part because of concerns from ranking member Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., about the heavy federal investment in transit. Last year, for example, transit received $70 billion in COVID-19 relief on top of the more than $12 billion Congress ordinarily invests in transit.

A spokesperson for Senate Republicans and Toomey, who is not a negotiator on the package, pushed back on the idea that Toomey was holding up the infrastructure package because of transit. “We are hoping to reach an agreement and continue to negotiate in good faith,” the spokesperson said.

Pay-fors mostly resolved

Despite the snag over transit spending, negotiators said they had resolved most of the issues they encountered on how to pay for the $579 billion in new spending. However, senators involved offered differing assessments about exactly how much had been finalized on pay-fors, which had been a primary topic of dispute.

“We’ve got all of them taken care of,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said.

He said the group has agreed to include a formal delay of a Trump-era Medicare rebate rule, which would block drug manufacturers from giving percentage-based rebates to pharmacy benefit managers that manage drugs for insurance plans.

Federal scorekeepers predicted insurers would increase premiums to account for the lost discounts. While the rule was delayed in court and has not yet taken effect, formally delaying its implementation would produce budgetary savings, although Tester declined to say how much.

Romney agreed ahead of the group’s Tuesday meeting that the pay-fors were “mostly resolved.” One matter that had not been finalized was which pots of unspent COVID-19 relief funding should be used as offsets, he said.

The original framework counted on redirecting federal money for a $300 boost to unemployment benefits that many states have stopped accepting. But the negotiators have also received additional information from the Congressional Budget Office on unspent money for business tax credits for employee retention and paid family and medical leave.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said the group was still waiting on some CBO scores and a Joint Committee on Taxation score, so the pay-fors were “not entirely” resolved.

House frustration

In the House, many Democrats are frustrated about the trajectory of the bipartisan bill and want to ensure their chamber will have input. Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to ease some of those concerns, telling her caucus in their weekly meeting Tuesday morning that the House may offer changes to whatever the Senate passes, according to members present.

That strategy, however, could backfire as moderate Democrats whose votes Pelosi will need to adopt the budget resolution setting up the reconciliation instructions have been urging for the House to quickly pass the bipartisan bill once the Senate sends it over.

“Everything is complicated, but we also don’t want to be just slammed by the Senate and kind of abdicate our role as part of the process,” House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said.

Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., expressed frustration that the Senate expects the House to just take up the bipartisan bill if it advances.

“We want an opportunity to actually negotiate the final bill and not just be handed the Senate bill and say this is it,” he said.

The House passed its own $767 billion highway and water bill July 1, which DeFazio has lauded as “transformative,” especially on policies dealing with climate change. The bill approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee “has an environment title on the side, like dressing,” he said.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday that the House will be prepared to take action on the bipartisan bill but DeFazio’s bill “needs to be integrated with whatever the Senate passes.”

However, Hoyer acknowledged that Democrats will likely have to weigh whether to fight for climate provisions in the House bill or to accept that adding those may not get 60 votes in the Senate and take up what that chamber can pass.

“We will have to make a judgment at some point in time whether or not we can get what we want … which will include dealing with climate in a very significant, effective way, or moving ahead on an infrastructure, which is absolutely essential without that in there,” he said. “Right now, I would say the decision leans towards the latter at this point in time, but I don’t think — the decision has not been made.”

Jennifer Shutt and David Lerman contributed to this report.