Transit, bridge funds knocked out as Senate takes up aid bill

Lawmakers brace themselves for another late-night 'vote-a-rama' on the Senate floor

Richard Durbin, D-Ill., arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Richard Durbin, D-Ill., arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 2, 2021 at 7:21pm, Updated at 10:40pm

Two infrastructure provisions in the House-passed coronavirus relief package that drew fire from Republicans will be stripped when the Senate takes up its own version as early as Wednesday.

One section of the $1.9 trillion bill that would set aside over $100 million for a Silicon Valley transit project didn't make it past the Senate's "Byrd rule," according to Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., and another source familiar with the discussions who couldn't speak on the record. 

That's because the language on the light rail and subway line, which once completed will connect downtown Santa Clara and San Jose, was considered "merely incidental" to the broader transit section of the bill. Toomey is the top Republican on the Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over transit programs.

Republicans had taken to calling the project "Pelosi's subway," even though it's not in her district and the initial funding allocation was approved by the Trump administration's Transportation Department. 

Meanwhile, a $1.5 million appropriation to replace toll revenue losses for a bridge that carries substantial border traffic between upstate New York and Canada, which Republicans said was an earmark for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer will also be stripped from the bill, a Senate source said.

The source said the Trump administration sought those funds as well, not Schumer, and that it was being taken out because local Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., didn't vouch for the project and opposed the broader bill. 

Both the bridge and transit project funding were OK'd when the Transportation Department was being run by Elaine Chao, who is married to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Nonetheless, Republicans cited those projects in recent days as examples of wasteful spending that have little to do with pandemic relief, so removing them gives the GOP two fewer talking points as Democrats head into a critical phase for the broader aid package.

In a floor speech Tuesday, McConnell went after the bridge and transit projects again, as well as money he said would benefit Planned Parenthood and special paid leave provisions for federal workers. He also singled out for special criticism a provision that appeared in early drafts of the Senate's revised bill providing higher Medicare reimbursement rates for hospitals in three states: Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

“You might call it a special kickback for the Acela corridor,” McConnell said, referring to Amtrak’s high-speed Northeastern rail line. Democrats have defended the provision, saying hospitals in those states suffer from a rate discrepancy compared to what neighboring hospitals receive.

Facing a March 14 deadline when expanded unemployment benefits are set to expire, lawmakers braced themselves for a late-night “vote-a-rama” on the Senate floor, likely on Thursday, in a push to dispose of scores if not hundreds of amendments. 

Senate Democrats hope to pass the bill by week’s end through the budget reconciliation process, which avoids the threat of a Republican filibuster. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said the House could take up the Senate's revised bill as soon as Monday in order to speed it to President Joe Biden's desk in plenty of time to beat the unemployment deadline.

Schumer teed up procedural moves early this week to be able to bring up a motion to proceed as soon as Wednesday, which will require a simple majority to adopt. Once that motion is adopted, up to 20 hours of debate begins followed by a "vote-a-rama" that could last into Friday.

“It means many long nights and many amendments,” said Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.

Internal disputes

Before Democrats can pass the aid package on what's expected to be a party-line vote, they must resolve lingering internal disputes over some of its components.

Those include the size and duration of expanded unemployment benefits. The House-passed bill calls for weekly benefits of $400 that would expire at the end of August. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., has pushed to lower the benefit to $300, saying he didn’t want to discourage people from returning to work. But most Democrats appeared to favor holding the line at $400.

Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., reported making “a lot of headway”  in the caucus for extending the benefits through September to avoid the risk of them lapsing during the August congressional recess. “I just see growing support for going into September,” he said.

The debate over the size of the benefit, he said, partly reflects a dispute between “big states with a higher cost of living” and “smaller states with a lower cost.” He also said he secured $2 billion in the bill to help states that have been inundated with benefit claims process them more efficiently.

Discussions also continued on whether tax rebate checks should be targeted more narrowly to lower-income households. The House bill allows for the maximum check of $1,400 to single filers making up to $75,000 a year and couples making $150,000, with a phase-out that would still allow for some families making up to about $200,000 to receive checks — even if they suffered no loss of income during the pandemic. Manchin wants to curtail the benefit further but hasn’t offered specifics.

Likewise under discussion was the formula governing the distribution of $350 billion in aid to state and local governments. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said there was “concern about the flexibility to local government” in the funding formula.

Cardin and others were also pushing to increase funding for broadband access, “more than what’s already in the bill,” he said. An early draft of the Senate package would have cut $428 million from $7.6 billion the House included for distance learning.

Virtual pep talk

With no margin for error in the evenly divided Senate, Biden offered a virtual pep talk Tuesday to Democrats over lunch, urging senators to stay united and pass the bill. He also urged them not to insist on provisions that could cause procedural obstacles in the reconciliation process, senators said.

“He very much understands the Senate process,” Cardin said of Biden, a former Delaware senator. “He wants to stay focused on getting it done and we all understand that reconciliation has its limits.”

Democrats won two procedural battles this week, when the Senate parliamentarian ruled in favor of provisions to shore up failing union pension plans and to provide subsidies for employer health insurance plans to workers who lose their jobs. Those provisions survived challenges under the Byrd rule.

But the parliamentarian dealt a major blow to one of Democrats' top legislative priorities, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over five years, by declaring that provision's budget impact "merely incidental."

Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he would nonetheless offer an amendment to raise the minimum wage. He suggested that the presiding officer ignore the parliamentary opinion and make the amendment in order, although he conceded the caucus probably wasn't on board with that approach.

Sanders said there was still time for senators to resolve their differences and get the bill passed. “There's a new invention,” Sanders told reporters. “It's called the telephone. And people, I think, are going to be burning the telephone up.”

Democrats got one key constituency on board with the package after saying they'll agree to drop the minimum wage increase: the restaurant industry's main trade group. The underlying bill would provide $25 billion in grants for hard-hit restaurants, which is a priority of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who like Manchin is an important swing vote.

"Demand for relief will far outpace the $25 billion in funding, but this is an incredible step forward and we look forward to working with you to see this program launch successfully to rescue countless industry jobs nationwide," wrote Sean Kennedy, the National Restaurant Association's executive vice president for public affairs, in a letter to congressional leaders Tuesday.

Jessica Wehrman, Jennifer Shutt and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.