Senate seeks finish line for infrastructure bill

Lawmakers hope to settle differences over amendments when they return on Saturday

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer filed a cloture motion Thursday night. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer filed a cloture motion Thursday night. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 6, 2021 at 5:52pm

Lawmakers were poised to return to the Senate on Saturday in hopes of finalizing a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package after a logjam over amendments slowed progress Thursday night.

With many leaving town to attend the funeral of former Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., on Friday, Senate leadership sought to smooth the path forward for the bill that includes $550 billion in new spending and would provide a one-time infusion into infrastructure such as roads, bridges, transit, rail and water systems.

Senators were able to come up with a list of amendments, including some bipartisan ones, to receive votes on Thursday, but members whose proposals didn’t make the cut blocked them from moving forward, according to the accounts of several senators.

“It’s just the way this place works,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, one of the lead negotiators on the bill. “People want their amendments to be voted on, and when they can’t get them voted on because one side or the other objects then they hold up everybody else.”

It was just before midnight on Thursday when Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer announced on the floor that they’d been unable to reach agreement on further amendments or a final passage vote. Schumer then filed cloture, setting up a key procedural vote for midday Saturday.

The list of amendments that senators had agreed to consider included one introduced by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Alex Padilla, D-Calif., that would 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 had sparked White House concerns that it could drain accounts still needed for pandemic-related expenses. Ultimately, Cornyn and the White House agreed to cap at 30 percent the amount of unspent COVID-19 relief funds that could be used for infrastructure.

But the Senate also needed to reach an agreement on an amendment introduced by Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., to add $50.2 billion in defense funding into the bill to address needed repairs to shipyards, test and training ranges, labs and depots. The bulk of that money, $25.35 billion, would go toward shipyards.

And senators continued to wrangle over competing proposals for provisions in the bill aimed at cracking down on cryptocurrency-related tax evasion.

Some members suggested that a little time away from each other could improve the spirit of cooperation in the chamber.

“I think giving everybody a day off, or a day to kind of just regroup and everybody to dial it down a little bit, is probably a good thing,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D.

He said it remains to be seen how much appetite for staying on the legislation will remain after Saturday’s procedural vote, although he also indicated some Republicans seem inclined to use all of the debate time available.

That could push a final passage vote into Sunday or later.

Thune said members want to feel they had an opportunity to get their proposals debated and voted on regardless of whether they will support the final measure.

“In the end, what ultimately happened tonight was a good outcome, and that is people kind of go to their corners and towel off and then we’ll come back and talk about it on Saturday when the cloture vote happens,” Thune said.

Although the legislation faces an uncertain and complicated path forward in the House, Senate passage would represent an important and timely victory for President Joe Biden at a time when the country faces a resurgent pandemic fueled by the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus and rising inflation.

It’s also a potential vindication of his preference to cut deals with Republicans to secure bipartisan achievements.

At the White House on Friday, Biden suggested the bill would transform the United States and invoked past examples of major infrastructure initiatives, such as the transcontinental railroad and interstate highway system.

He also touted the legislation’s benefits as far as economic development and job creation.

“It’s a bill that would end years of gridlock in Washington and create millions of good-paying jobs and put America on a new path to win the race for the economy in the 21st century,” Biden said. “Historic investment in roads and rail and transit and bridges, in clean energy and clean water, will enable us not only to build back but to build back better than before the economic crisis hit.”