Senate aims for weekend vote on infrastructure bill

Vote would clear the way for the Senate to take up a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation plan

Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., both standing, led the 22 lawmakers who negotiated the infrastructure bill.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., both standing, led the 22 lawmakers who negotiated the infrastructure bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 5, 2021 at 10:55pm

The Senate could vote this weekend on its nearly $1 trillion infrastructure legislation after Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer filed a motion to bring the debate to a close as soon as Saturday.

The weekend vote would clear the way for the Senate to take up a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation plan that includes President Joe Biden’s more partisan domestic priorities.

Senators had hoped to finish work on the bipartisan bill as early as Thursday night, with Senate leadership trying to push through 16 amendments and then pass the bill before senators leave Friday morning for the funeral of former Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

Instead, they spent a day waiting, first for a Congressional Budget Office score of the bill, then for an agreement on amendments.

They got the score at around 4 p.m., with the CBO's release confirming conservative complaints that the bill was not, as advertised, fully paid for.

[The Senate is about to pull some all-nighters. Why?]

The CBO’s score said the measure would add some $256 billion to the deficit between 2021 and 2031. The leaders of the 22-member bipartisan group that negotiated the bill sought to calm fears about the measure, saying that the CBO “is limited in what it can use in its formal score.”

“The new spending under the bill is offset through a combination of new revenue and savings, some of which is reflected in the formal CBO score and some of which is reflected in other savings and additional revenue identified in estimates,” Sens. Rob Portman R-Ohio, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., leading negotiators, said in a joint statement

At around 6 p.m., leaders asked members if they would object to the Senate taking up the 16 amendments, including one by Sinema and Portman that included technical corrections.

Schumer filed cloture just before 9 p.m., but warned the final vote may not be until Saturday.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., was more blunt, telling reporters just after 9: “I’m not feeling it. ... If you want to see final passage, go home.”

The 2,702-page bill, which pays for roads, bridges, wastewater and drinking water programs, broadband expansion, rail and transit, includes $550 billion in new spending, which negotiators said was fully paid for with off-setting revenue and savings.

Deficit impact

But the CBO’s analysis, posted Thursday afternoon, found several offsets advertised earlier in the process either didn't materialize in the official score or weren’t as high as negotiators had estimated.

For example, the Senators — 11 Republicans and 11 Democrats — who negotiated the bill’s spending and pay-fors got no credit for spurring additional economic growth and job creation from the budget scorekeepers, after claiming what they thought would be a $56 billion revenue bump. Nor was any credit given for $53 billion in lower estimated unemployment insurance payments due to states cutting off benefits early; that was already baked into the CBO's updated economic forecast.

Instead of some $205 billion in redirected pandemic relief aid being used to cover some costs, the budget scorekeepers tallied up about $35.2 billion in rescissions of unspent pandemic relief funds. But since much of that wasn't going to be spent anyway, the CBO said only $13.8 billion would count as actual savings.

The biggest chunk of money in the bill would come from discretionary spending — $446 billion in supplemental appropriations designated as an "emergency."

Over five years, the measure's boost in funding for programs financed by the Highway Trust Fund — highways, bridges, transit and some smaller programs — would total nearly $90 billion. The remainder comes from a smattering of mandatory authorizations and tax breaks.

But the Highway Trust Fund program authorizations don't count CBO scoring guidelines; if they had, the deficit impact of the measure would have been much greater.

Those surface transportation programs are subject to a hybrid budgetary treatment. Although the "contract authority" granted by the bill is a form of mandatory spending, budget scorekeepers can't actually estimate their deficit impact until the annual appropriations bills set a ceiling on how much of that money can be spent during that fiscal year.

Over a decade, the CBO said contract authority for Highway Trust Fund surface transportation programs — which are funded by motor fuels and other sales taxes — would be $196.5 billion higher than current baseline spending. That figure assumes that funding totals in the last year of the bill's authorization would continue indefinitely.

With trust fund taxes being rapidly depleted, the bill would inject another $118 billion in general revenue to keep the programs it supports afloat for the next several years. That cash infusion has no deficit impact under CBO's guidelines, however, since the money is just being moved from one Treasury account to another.

Nearing the end

Earlier Thursday, lawmakers seemed bullish about wrapping up the bipartisan bill.

As of Thursday night, the Senate had taken up 22 amendments, with roll call votes on 17 and voice votes on five. In all, it accepted seven amendments and rejected 10 others.

Portman said the consideration of so many amendments had helped lawmakers feel they had input in the process.

“We’re doing our job, we’re letting people be heard,” he said. “The Senate is speaking through these amendments.”

One amendment outstanding early Thursday was a proposal by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to grant states and local governments autonomy to use unspent federal COVID-19 relief money to meet federal-state matching requirements on infrastructure projects.

That amendment initially garnered support from a handful of Senate Democrats including Sen. Alex Padilla of California, but Cornyn said on the floor that it sparked concerns from the White House that it could drain accounts still needed for pandemic-related expenses.

Cornyn later said he’d worked with the White House and landed on a resolution capping at 30 percent the amount of unspent COVID-19 relief funds that could be used for infrastructure. He said he would push for a roll call vote on the proposal because he wanted a high level of support on the record as the measure heads to the House.

As debate dragged on, critics on both the left and right lined up to air grievances.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said the bipartisan gang of 22 moderate lawmakers who negotiated the details of the bill lacked geographic and racial diversity, and that lack of diversity was reflected in their product.

He said the result was a bill that pays significant attention to wildfires but not enough to flooding along the Atlantic Coast, one that devotes significant money for cleaning up abandoned mines but not enough for addressing the toxic Superfund sites that plague disadvantaged communities.

Across the aisle, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, criticized the budget offsets, saying the bill was paid for by “gimmicks,” and characterized Republicans supporting the infrastructure package as playing into the hands of Democrats as they look to next pass a multitrillion-dollar budget reconciliation package.

He compared Republican senators to Charlie Brown and his perennially failed attempts to kick a football that Lucy, or in this case Schumer, always pulls away.

“It'd be nice for Republicans not to fall for it again,” he said. “The Senate minority leader is fond of saying ‘there's no learning in the second kick from a mule.’ Well, there are a whole lot of Republicans that seem eager to get kicked a second time from a mule.”

Still, many senators expressed an urge to wrap things up by late Thursday.

“I don’t think anybody’s looking to extend this out any longer than necessary,” said Cornyn.