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Vote falls short, but infrastructure talks continue

Rejection of procedural step sets the stage for a second try, possibly early next week

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer makes his way to a news conference on immigration outside the Capitol while the Senate conducted a procedural vote on the infrastructure bill.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer makes his way to a news conference on immigration outside the Capitol while the Senate conducted a procedural vote on the infrastructure bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate’s rejection Wednesday of a procedural step to advance a still unwritten infrastructure bill sets the stage for a second attempt, possibly early next week.

While Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said little Wednesday about pleas from Republicans in the 22-member bipartisan group negotiating details of the $1.2 trillion legislation to schedule the vote next week, his actions hinted at his intentions.

By changing his vote to oppose cloture on the motion to proceed to the plan’s legislative vehicle, Schumer allowed the Senate “to reconsider this vote at a future time,” he said on the Senate floor. He did not specify when.

Republican negotiators, who unanimously opposed moving forward, argued that the vote was not a referendum on the bipartisan framework itself but an opportunity to iron out two lingering disagreements: transit funding and which pots of unspent COVID-19 relief dollars to use to help pay for the package, which includes $579 billion in new spending.

Those Republicans, led by Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, sent Schumer a letter Wednesday urging him to hold the vote again next week, vowing that they will be able to deliver the 10 GOP votes needed to invoke cloture and begin debate. That group shifted membership slightly, with Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran declining to sign the letter but North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer, who had not previously been involved in negotiations, signing on.

“Leader Schumer wanted to understand if there were 10 Republicans in favor of getting on the bill,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, one of the negotiators. “And we’ve indicated, yeah, there are 10. Probably more.”

The transit issue has emerged in part because the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, which has jurisdiction over transit, has not reached an agreement on language to reauthorize spending on transit because of differences between Chairman Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and ranking member Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., over the level of federal investment. The negotiators hope to use that legislative language in their broader bill.

However, the negotiators will use legislative text written by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has advanced its bills to reauthorize spending on highways and on drinking and wastewater. The group will also adopt language from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation’s rail and safety legislation.

Portman said the group would “prefer for the Banking Committee to make its own accommodations and come up with an authorization.”

“We’ve been hoping, praying that they would do it,” he said.

As initially written, the bipartisan plan would provide an additional $48.5 billion in new spending on transit, while roads, bridges and major projects would receive $110 billion.

Republicans have argued that although federal law calls for the federal gas tax-funded Highway Trust Fund to be split 80 percent for highways and 20 percent for transit, Congress has been defying that formula by giving transit additional money.

Transit, for example, has received $70 billion in COVID-19 relief on top of the more than $12 billion Congress ordinarily invests in transit during a year. Toomey, in Banking Committee hearings, has called that amount “staggering.”

On Fox Business on Wednesday, he said the nearly $83 billion spent on transit since last March was “more than the operating budget and the capital budgets of every transit agency in America combined.”

Transit jam

“And now,” Toomey said, “they want tens of billions of additional money. And they haven’t even spent about half of all of the money we spent last year. It’s like people think this is monopoly money around here.”

Romney said Wednesday that negotiators were grappling with how to treat the 80-20 split of funding going forward.

He said the disagreement stems in part from the fact that states have varying levels of transit.

“Not every state has transit, but, as you know, the money comes from the Highway Trust Fund in large measure, and the people who are paying for the Highway Trust Fund are people that are driving vehicles, so it’s a burden on those in states that don’t have any transit,” Romney said.

Brown painted the issue as more ideological in nature.

“The Republicans don’t have great interest in public transit,” he said. “Their proposals are far too inadequate.” He added that “there’s been a tradition of fairly good public transit funding, but it doesn’t seem to be on the table from them yet.”

Brown said if the group tries to defer to the Banking Committee, “Sen. Toomey can block the whole bill, because his numbers are woefully inadequate.”

“I just want to get to an agreement where they take seriously public transit funding, and they haven’t yet,” he said.

Negotiator Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., offered a more blunt description.

“Republicans hate transit, Democrats like transit,” Tester said. “It’s that simple.”

Despite the lingering disagreement, Tester said during an MSNBC appearance Wednesday that he thinks the measure will get a lot of bipartisan support in the end.

“We might lose some Democrats, and we’re certainly not going to get all the Republicans, but I think there will be a good bipartisan vote to move this forward,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen, I think, shame on us.”

The 22 negotiators did manage to agree on a joint statement after the cloture vote, proclaiming, “We will continue working hard to ensure we get this critical legislation right — and are optimistic that we will finalize, and be prepared to advance, this historic bipartisan proposal to strengthen America’s infrastructure and create good-paying jobs in the coming days.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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