Amendment holds slow Senate infrastructure bill’s progress

Delays may push debate into the weekend, frustrating hopes to finish this week

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., conducts a news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday.  (om Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., conducts a news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday. (om Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 3, 2021 at 8:10pm

Individual senators’ holds on bipartisan amendments slowed debate on a nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill Tuesday, casting doubt on Senate Democrats’ hopes of wrapping up the bill by this weekend. 

By 5 p.m. Tuesday, senators had voted on only seven amendments out of more than 250 introduced to the bipartisan bill. One, introduced by Sens. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, designating a future I-14 corridor through five states from Texas to Georgia, was adopted by voice vote. Of the six that received roll call votes, three were adopted.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., wants to move quickly because he has vowed to finish both the bipartisan bill and a budget resolution needed to begin the partisan reconciliation process before adjourning for August recess. The Senate was scheduled to adjourn for recess at the end of the week, but senators in both parties say the session will stretch at least into early next week.

“The bottom line is this: The Senate can work through amendments rather efficiently when we have cooperation between the majority and the minority, as we have had in this bipartisan legislation,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “It can go rather slowly, of course, without that cooperation. In either case, the Senate is going to stay here until we finish our work.”

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Republicans have acknowledged that many of the holds on amendments stem from their side. They spent their conference lunch Tuesday discussing the need to lift them and secure the open amendment process that GOP leaders have requested. A hold is an informal process that allows a senator to prevent a measure from being considered on the floor. 

“We don't want cloture to be filed soon,” said Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, one of the Republicans who negotiated the bill. “We want to have a robust amendment process, but that means folks after reading it will take off their holds.” 

Senate Minority Whip John Thune said one of the holds involves a dispute between the leaders of the Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over the transit title of the bill. 

“There is one amendment in particular, I think, that was a violation of an agreement Pat Toomey had with Sherrod Brown when they negotiated this deal, and he may have a temporary hold until they get that figured out,” the South Dakota Republican said, referring to Sens. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., and Brown, D-Ohio.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday that he is supporting the bipartisan group of negotiators that drafted the infrastructure bill and that he has encouraged his conference “to judge it based on the package itself, not what may come next,” a reference to Democrats’ plan to pass up to $3.5 trillion more spending through the reconciliation process. 

Moving forward

“Like a lot of us, I’m interested in what it looks like at the end, but I’m in favor of trying to get an outcome on a bipartisan infrastructure package,” the Kentucky Republican said. 

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said lawmakers were “having a tough time getting holds taken off a lot of different amendments,” but that it’s in the interest of both parties to drop those and move forward. 

“I think we ought to just vote on a lot of them,” he said, adding, “We're doing as much defense on some poison pill amendments … and I think we can defeat the poison pill amendments, so for me it's more a matter of moving forward, getting the process to work again.”

Democrats say the poison pill amendments are coming mostly from the Republican side. “The ones that Democrats want tend to be bipartisan,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. 

Ultimately, the Senate is not expected to adopt any amendments that substantively change the bill and risk the fragile agreement negotiated by the bipartisan group of 22 senators falling apart. 

“Amendments that violate the terms of their deal … they can shoot down because they'd have 60 votes to beat anything,” Thune said. “And they could beat them on the tabling motion at 51. So it's going to be, I think, largely probably up to that group, which amendments get considered.”

One vulnerable aspect of the bill is its cost. Senators are awaiting a Congressional Budget Office score that negotiators say will likely give them official credit for offsetting only about half of the $550 billion in new spending, although the bill includes other provisions like redirecting unspent coronavirus relief to pay for the other half.

“Usually people aren't adding pay-fors. Usually they're adding things to be paid for,” Cassidy said of amendments. “And we don't want to change the score.”

Lee piles on

Of the more than 250 amendments introduced Monday, 35 were from Sen. Mike Lee

The Utah Republican, who gave an impassioned floor speech Sunday in opposition to the bill, introduced an amendment to increase the maximum time a commercial truck driver could drive from 11 hours to 12 hours. 

He also advocated for one to strike Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements from the energy section of the bill. 

On Tuesday, he received a vote on an amendment to replace the text of the bill with provisions related to highway funding, including transferring unobligated coronavirus relief funding into the Highway Trust Fund, reducing the gas tax and terminating the mass transit account within the fund. The amendment was rejected 20-78.

The Senate approved, 95-3, an amendment introduced by Sens. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would require the secretary of Transportation to conduct a study on the direct costs of highway use by various types of users. 

The last time such a study was conducted was 1997. In a statement, Lummis said the results of the new study would help “determine how we pay for our infrastructure moving forward.” 

Fossil fuel amendments
Republicans have introduced a number of amendments to the package aimed at defending or promoting the use of fossil fuels.

The bill includes language requiring a study on any job losses or impacts on energy costs stemming from President Joe Biden’s decision to cancel a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

An amendment from Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., would require Biden to reverse that cancellation if the study finds it resulted in job losses and impacts on consumer energy costs.

The bill already includes language requiring a study on the “cradle to grave environmental impact” of electric vehicles.

But Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, wants tighter language and has an amendment to require a study on the “emissions of the full lifecycle of an electric vehicle, from battery production to disposal.” The amendment would further spell out what the study should examine.

Midwestern ethanol supporters have expressed concern about a lack of support for biofuels in the infrastructure bill. One of Ernst’s amendments would authorize $1.5 billion for a grant program to install ethanol blender pumps infrastructure.

Another Ernst amendment would bar any new fees or penalties on energy facilities that “would result in higher energy prices for taxpayers or small businesses in the United States.”

Democrats have amendments of their own to the package.

One, from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, would require the EPA to set Clean Water Act guidelines and standards for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment.

And Kaine proposed to add language prioritizing fixing existing highways before building new capacity. The approach was one embraced in a surface transportation bill passed by the House on July 1. The Senate amended that bill as the legislative vehicle for its infrastructure package.