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Senate moves to debate on infrastructure as bill takes shape

Debate could stretch through the weekend, senators say

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W. Va., spoke at a Problem Solvers Caucus news conference on the infrastructure deal on Friday.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W. Va., spoke at a Problem Solvers Caucus news conference on the infrastructure deal on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Drama over a leaked document briefly upended a procedural vote on the still unfinished Senate infrastructure package Friday, but the air was cleared and the vote succeeded, kicking off what is likely to be a contentious debate that could stretch through the weekend.

The Senate voted 66-28 to proceed to the legislative vehicle for the bipartisan package that includes $944 billion in new and baseline spending over five years for infrastructure including highways, transit, rail, broadband and resilience. While a vote earlier this week to invoke cloture drew 17 Republicans to join Democrats in the 50-50 Senate, Friday’s vote, which required a simple majority, still drew 16 Republicans. 

Last-minute drama, a perennial part of the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, briefly delayed the vote. 

A leaked document — “which is not the version we agreed upon,” said negotiator Bill Cassidy, R-La. — that purported to be bill text circulating on K Street spurred Republicans to wonder if Democratic leadership planned to use their own text, rather than the bipartisan agreement hashed out by 22 senators. 

[Infrastructure lament: ‘Deal is more important than the outcome’]

The leaked text, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, led to “mass confusion.”

“There was a question as to whether (Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer) would lay that down as a substitute, which to me just displays a lack of trust,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. 

The concerns sparked Schumer to speak with bipartisan negotiators, who have been calling their group the “G-22,” and assure them he would use their text, said Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.

“There was a misunderstanding, thinking that the majority side put something in. They didn’t. They just started drafting off of all that we had,” Manchin said. “The bottom line, Chuck made it very clear, this is going to be a G-22 text that we’ll end up with.”

Manchin said the drafting of the G-22 text was continuing midday Friday and bipartisan group members would watch closely to ensure it matches what they agreed to. He rejected a suggestion that there was any problem having Friday’s floor vote before the text was available.

“There has to be some trust,” Manchin said. “If not, you’d be here forever and never get anything done.”

In addition, senators were still working on broadband provisions of the bill. Cornyn said Republicans had concerns that language in the broadband provisions would lead to “rate setting or price fixing.” 

“Our Democratic friends tend to view telecom and broadband as utilities, where we take a little bit more of a free market approach,” he said. “That was the concern there, but I think we’re going to grind through it.”

Multiple senators said they expect to work through the weekend.

’90 percent’ ready

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, one of the negotiators, said the text was “about 90 percent” of the way complete midday Friday, meaning senators were uncertain if they’d actually be able to vote on amendments this weekend. “Unless there’s a bill text, it’s kind of hard to amend anything,” said Cornyn, “So I think it’s just going to be a kind of ugly grind.”

Despite Republican input on the bipartisan framework, conservatives pushed back against the deal Friday, warning against giving Democrats and President Joe Biden a win.

Former President Donald Trump accused Senate Republicans of “caving” to Democrats, who also plan to push a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that they hope to pass over Republican resistance. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has vowed not to take up the bipartisan infrastructure package until the reconciliation bill has passed. 

“Infrastructure is just a ‘carrot’ for a massive socialist expansion,” Trump wrote, saying passing the measure will “give a big win to the Democrats.”

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., meanwhile sent out a flurry of tweets late Thursday claiming the bill’s pay-fors “are either completely phony or don’t quite cut the mustard.”

As an example, he cited the $205 billion that bipartisan negotiators decided to use from unused COVID-19 relief funds. “Reshuffling money we borrowed in the first place doesn’t count as a pay-for,” he wrote.

He also criticized the $49 billion in savings the group estimated they would get from delaying a Trump-era rule limiting drug manufacturer rebates to pharmacy benefit managers. “Raising drug prices on seniors is not a pay-for,” he tweeted. “It’s wrong.”

While Pelosi has promised to hold off on the Senate infrastructure bill until after reconciliation, members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus called Friday for a swift, standalone House vote on the package.

Caucus co-chair Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., expressed optimism about the legislation’s chances given the momentum building behind it. He said those behind the deal have worked too hard to let it fail now.

“We’re not there yet of course, but I’m confident that when this bill gets sent to the House from the Senate and with the president and the White House firmly behind it we will take it up quickly for a strong standalone, bipartisan vote because that’s what the country wants,” Gottheimer said.

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