Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer late Monday scheduled a procedural vote Wednesday on a $579 billion bipartisan infrastructure framework despite Republican threats to vote against the motion to proceed without a finalized agreement.
“It’s time to begin the debate,” the New York Democrat said on the Senate floor.
Schumer filed cloture on a House bill that “will act as a legislative vehicle” for the infrastructure plan. The vote on Wednesday, he said, would simply be a motion to begin debate, and that if the negotiators reached a deal by Thursday, he would file a substitute amendment inserting the language of the deal.
If the bipartisan negotiators do not reach an agreement by then, Schumer said he would offer amendments to add Senate committee-passed legislation on drinking water and wastewater, rail and safety, highways and energy.
Before Schumer announced his plan for amendments, Republican senators said Monday their party was unlikely to vote for the motion to proceed while negotiations are ongoing. Schumer will need 10 Republicans, in addition to all 50 Democrats, to vote for the motion to begin debate on the bill before he can offer any amendments.
“I think we need to see the bill before we decide whether or not to vote for it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters.
“I think Republicans would probably not want to proceed if we don’t know what’s in the bill yet,” Romney said. “Nothing’s agreed to until everything’s agreed to.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the lead Republican negotiator, also questioned Schumer’s strategy.
“I mean, what are we going to have a cloture vote on?” he asked. “It’s just kind of silliness.”
Cassidy left open whether he’d vote to proceed, saying he preferred to have more clarity on unresolved issues. “I mean, does every dot have to be dotted? No, but…there’s still a couple of issues outstanding,” he said.
Democratic negotiators, however, seemed on board with their leader’s strategy. “I think it’s a good plan. Basically it’s a working plan,” Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., said after meeting with Schumer.
The bipartisan group was on a Zoom call from 7:30 p.m. to after 10 p.m. Sunday, with calls beginning again Monday at 7 a.m., Portman and Romney said. The group planned to meet virtually well into Monday night as well, with Portman saying members have pared down more than two dozen differences to a little more than a dozen.
“We’re working as hard as we can,” Portman said. “We’ve never legislated on something this significant in the space of a couple of weeks.
“We agreed to the framework the day we left for recess,” he added. “And we’ve had one week in session since that time.”
The remaining differences are primarily over pay-fors but also include some spending issues, Romney said. “There are quite a few issues,” he said.
One outstanding issue is replacing an IRS tax enforcement provision that negotiators originally estimated would have cost $40 billion but generated $140 billion, netting $100 billion in revenue. The CBO later tentatively estimated it would only net $60 billion in revenue, according to an aide familiar with the negotiations. Portman, meanwhile, said estimates have been closer to $80 billion.
Regardless, the provision’s removal leaves negotiators with a $100 billion hole to plug since their original framework counted on that to fully pay for the $579 billion in new spending.
The tax enforcement piece had been controversial since the negotiators and White House reached the agreement last month.
Some conservatives, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, expressed concern that the IRS unfairly targets conservatives, fretting that additional enforcement would lead to harassment of ordinary taxpayers.
And Portman said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday that Democrats removed the provision in order to use it for their partisan $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. Democrats, however, blamed Republicans for being unwilling to do anything perceived as helping the IRS.
Portman said one provision being looked at as a replacement is the Trump-era Medicare rebate rule.
That rule, which has not been implemented, would block drug manufacturers from giving percentage-based rebates to pharmacy benefit managers that manage drugs for insurance plans. Critics of the practice say the rebates encourage higher list prices and don’t reach patients at the pharmacy counter.
Federal scorekeepers predicted insurers would increase premiums to account for the lost discounts, but that rule was delayed in court and has not yet taken effect.
An aide familiar with negotiations said repealing the rebate was initially proposed as a pay-for in June, but the White House resisted it. It later appeared as an offset in the outline of a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation agreement reached by Senate Budget Committee Democrats, Schumer and the White House last week. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
A 2019 CBO estimate said that implementing the rule would cost $177 billion over a decade, though a source familiar with the negotiations said more recent CBO guidance puts it at $186 billion.
A decision to include a delay of the rule or full repeal in the bipartisan bill, both of which have been discussed as options, would mean Democrats could not use those savings in the reconciliation measure.
Voting for what?
Senate leadership has not gamed out what they’ll do if the motion to proceed to the vehicle for the bipartisan bill is not agreed to on Wednesday, according to Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. “That hasn’t been discussed,” he said.
He also said they have not discussed whether to move forward with the budget resolution that will set up the parameters for reconciliation if the bipartisan bill stalls.
Durbin pushed back on the idea that the bipartisan group hadn’t been given enough time, saying many of the negotiators “have been working on this for months.”
“At this point, I don’t know what remains to be determined,” he said.
Even without a bill to score, individual negotiators have been consulting with the CBO for guidance on what aides said could become potential revenue sources.
The CBO last week posted two letters to negotiator Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who is leading the group along with Portman, as well as a third letter to Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who is also a member of the Senate Budget Committee.
One Sinema letter focused on the cost of extending expanded unemployment compensation enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. That letter found that the pandemic unemployment insurance would cost $53 billion less than expected because of states cutting off added benefits early, as well as the improving economy.
The other Sinema letter focused on the budgetary impacts of the employee retention tax credit and other tax credit money that had not been spent. The Warner letter, meanwhile, focused on pandemic-related sick and family leave tax credits. In both cases, the CBO said the tax credits cost less than originally projected.
The group previously agreed to a long list of pay-fors including auctioning off the 5G spectrum, selling some of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, repurposing broadband funding from previous legislation, adjusting customs fees and dynamic scoring.
Lauren Clason contributed to this report.