Senators aim to settle bipartisan infrastructure text as clock ticks

Schumer has signaled he wants the full Senate to vote on the bill before August recess

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Tuesday night that the group had resolved many differences, but contentious issues remain. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Tuesday night that the group had resolved many differences, but contentious issues remain. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 14, 2021 at 11:44am

As a bipartisan group of senators works to flesh out a $579 billion infrastructure framework that they and President Joe Biden agreed upon before the July Fourth recess, they are bumping up against the clock.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has signaled he wants the full Senate to vote on the bill before it leaves for the August recess.

But the calendar is tight — especially given the simultaneous, partisan push by Democrats on a broader package using the budget reconciliation process. And after a meeting of the bipartisan group Tuesday, it became clear the lawmakers are still ironing out differences and are not yet drafting legislative language.

[Manchin wants details on how $3.5 trillion budget bill will be paid for]

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who has teamed with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to lead the bipartisan group, said after the meeting that while many issues had been resolved, a couple dozen or more remained outstanding.

If the group is able to meet its goal of resolving all disputes by Thursday, Portman suggested staff members are prepared to work through the weekend drafting legislative text. Still, he described as “very ambitious” the idea that the measure would be ready for floor consideration next week. 

“I’d like to do it as soon as we can, but do it in a way that’s careful and cautious and consistent with what we’ve done from the start, which is get it right,” Portman said.

Others shared his skepticism about floor action next week.

“I think it’s really unlikely” that a written bipartisan infrastructure deal will be released by the end of this week, said Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. “I don’t see any way possible that this is on the floor next week. There’s just too many things left to do, and scores to get and pay-fors for us to explain and vet and then even some of the policy itself.”

Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., countered: “I think he’s wrong. It’s still possible.” 

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a member of the bipartisan group, said getting the legislation released this week “seems unlikely, given how much work there is to do in drafting, and we still have a number of outstanding issues.”

Romney and other members of the bipartisan working group have said they plan to use legislative language advanced through committee work, including bills advanced by the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Commerce, Science and Transportation bill as part of each panel’s surface transportation jurisdiction. 

A third Senate committee, Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, has jurisdiction over transit, but has yet to take up its portion of the bill.

The House, meanwhile, on July 1 passed a $759 billion, five-year highway bill that House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., said contained key policy provisions sought by Biden.

Portman said the group is also getting input from the House Problem Solvers Caucus, but that he “can’t say it’s always consistent with the House bill.”

No earmarks?

Portman said the bipartisan bill will, for example, not have earmarks. The House bill included $5.7 billion worth of earmarks. He said the bipartisan Senate group has 22 working groups, with 11 on the spending side and 11 trying to figure out how to pay for it. “We’re pushing forward,” he said, but “I don’t think we’ll finalize the bill text” this week. 

Republicans such as Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who agreed to the two-page framework the senators are trying to build upon, have since expressed concern about a Democratic plan to pair it with a multi-trillion budget reconciliation bill aimed at pushing other, more partisan priorities.

Another hurdle is the long menu of pay-fors included in the bill, including stepped up IRS enforcement. Lawmakers have expressed increasing concern that the Congressional Budget Office won’t count it as revenue, meaning they cannot say that the bill is fully paid for. 

“They have a convention where they say, unless it’s a specific reporting requirement, they’re hesitant to give you any credit in an official score,” Portman said. “But they’ll give you the analysis, which in this place, we’ll use that analysis all the time.”

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., who is also a member of the bipartisan group, said repeatedly Tuesday that he wants all spending, whether it’s included in the bipartisan infrastructure agreement or a Democrats-only budget reconciliation package, to be fully offset. “Everything should be paid for,” Manchin said. “How much more debt can y’all handle?”

But he then clarified that he’s not a “hard no” if the spending turns out to be less than 100 percent offset.

“I’m just saying that I like to find ways to pay for things,” Manchin said. “I think we’ve incurred over 28 and a half trillion dollars of debt and I’d like to start paying for things.”

Manchin suggested senators could soon release legislative text or at least more detail on just how they plan to offset for the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“We’re working on that,” Manchin said. “We’re putting ours together tomorrow. We’ll have them by probably first of the week.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a member of the bipartisan group, said that he still has questions about the way that the CBO is treating some of the proposals on the table.

“I don’t know what kind of math they use, but it isn’t the math that I learned in high school,” Tester said.

Members of the group emerging from the Tuesday evening meeting agreed that the goal is to have major decisions of what’s in and out of the proposal wrapped up by Thursday so the legislative text can be written and assessed by the CBO.

“We are using Thursday as our ‘Let’s work through all of the knotty issues that we have and get those resolved so that we can get things sent off to drafting and scoring,’” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Murkowski and others leaving the meeting were upbeat about the level of GOP support for the proposal being crafted.

“I’m looking around the room and feeling like the numbers are solid and with the potential to grow,” Murkowski said.

Portman said some areas have been relatively simple to navigate because they essentially involve just increasing spending levels in the surface transportation bill approved by the Environment and Public Works Committee.

But the group is starting with a blank slate in others, such as broadband.

“How do you spend an historic level of spending to make sure you get the digital backbone we all want, that’s going to change America?” Portman said. “That requires a lot of work.”