The Senate on Tuesday handed President Biden a long-sought bipartisan victory by passing a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that won the support of 19 Republicans and the entire Democratic caucus.
The 69-30 vote capped months of negotiations between the White House and a group of senators, led by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and comes after Biden campaigned on his ability to bring bipartisanship back to Washington.
“Congress has talked about truly modernizing our nation’s infrastructure for as long as we can remember. The United States Senate delivered so that we can finally give the American people the safe, reliable, and modern infrastructure they deserve,” Portman, Sinema and the eight other senators who were the core negotiators said in a joint statement after the vote.
The infrastructure package includes roughly $550 billion in new funding, making it substantially smaller than the $2.6 trillion proposed by Biden earlier this year. The measure would provide spending for roads, bridges, broadband, water and rail.
The bill would add $256 billion to the deficit, according to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis, though negotiators argue that “hard” infrastructure projects pay for themselves over time and the CBO didn’t give them full credit for their work.
Even though the bipartisan bill appeared in recent days to be on a glide path to passage, that was far from the case early on, particularly when Biden’s talks with a group of GOP senators unraveled.
That setback, however, was followed by talks with a group of the 10 core negotiators that led to an announcement at the White House in late June that they had reached a deal on a framework. That deal was largely reflected in Tuesday’s bill.
Members of the bipartisan group that negotiated the deal say their bill shows that the chamber can still function despite partisan headwinds and naysayers.
Sinema, speaking from the Senate floor, noted that lawmakers had “heard in recent months that bipartisanship isn’t possible anymore.”
“We have been asked to accept a new standard by which important policy can only come together on a party line. And while Americans are more united than our politics would have you believe, we certainly face divisions,” Sinema said, in an apparent reference to calls to nix the legislative filibuster.
She added that the bipartisan deal is “what it looks like when elected leaders take a step toward healing our country’s divisions, rather than feeding those very divisions.”
Biden, speaking to reporters at the White House, also touted his belief in the ability for the Senate, a chamber he spent decades serving in, to bridge the country’s growing partisan divide.
“This bill shows that we can work together. I know a lot of people, some sitting in the audience here, didn’t think this could happen … that bipartisanship was a thing of the past … a relic of an earlier age. … I never believed that, and I still don’t,” he said.
Infrastructure has long been a white whale in Washington, D.C., making it prime deal-making fodder for a 50-50 Senate where a core group of centrists in both parties are still eager to try to prove that the sort of sweeping agreements that have become increasingly elusive are still possible.
Lawmakers were able to resist pressure from both progressives and the right. Liberals worried that the party was wasting precious time in a flashback to the ObamaCare debate where Democrats tried unsuccessfully for months to get GOP support. Meanwhile, former President Trump and conservatives have publicly blasted Republicans who supported the bipartisan deal and Republicans tried to combat misinformation.
“We’ve got phone calls today saying only 3 percent of it is infrastructure, or we’re hearing that it’s the $3.5 trillion bill,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who supported the bipartisan bill.
Even though the Senate started Tuesday in an era of good feeling with the bipartisan vote, it quickly descended into a partisan slog as Democrats turned to a budget resolution that sets up their $3.5 trillion spending package.
Democrats are pursuing that much-larger spending package under a budget process known as reconciliation, which lets them avoid the legislative filibuster. That will include expanding Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing; efforts to combat climate change; immigration reform; and other big priorities such as universal prekindergarten and tuition-free community college.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) pointed to the dueling strategies on Tuesday as a “good news, bad news day.”
“The good news is that today, we really did something historic in the United States Senate,” she said. “And then literally, in the course of a couple of hours, now we are moving to an exercise that will be wholly partisan.”
The legislative about-face put on stark display both the ability for Democrats to cut bipartisan deals and the limits they face in getting GOP votes as they try to enact Biden’s lengthy legislative agenda.
And even as Biden and senators take a victory lap over the bipartisan deal, it’s not clear where they’ll be able to replicate it heading into a fall that is jam packed with deeply partisan fights and as other top priorities are stuck in limbo.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called the bipartisan bill a “significant achievement” but said it “really shows the limitations of what we can get done more so than the possibilities.”
“This is the narrow band where you can get Republican buy-in,” he said.
The bipartisan deal underscores the limits on what among Democrats’ big agenda items can get the 10 GOP votes required to hit the 60-vote requirement needed for most legislation in the Senate.
Top priorities such as expanding background checks for guns and voting rights are currently stuck without a viable path forward as Democrats have tried, but struggled, to win over enough Republican support.
Senators are still negotiating on a potential police reform deal and are expected to keep talking over the August recess.
“I’m hoping that there’s an opportunity to thread the needle there,” said GOP Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, but added that it would be “hard.”
Democrats don’t currently have the votes to nix the legislative filibuster, which would require total unity from their 50-member conference. But they argue that the bipartisan infrastructure package is the exception that proves the rule and doesn’t sway their belief that they need to reform the chamber’s rules.
Asked if the bipartisan bill impacts the Democratic debate over nixing the filibuster, Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told reporters: “In a way it does, in a way it doesn’t.”
“You’re giving stuff away. … Members get to cut ribbons and wear hard hats. You know, it’s the easiest bill in the world, in that respect,” Durbin said of the infrastructure plan.
Murphy said his “hope is eternal” on getting GOP buy-in for other big priorities, “but I feel like I know the script on the other major issues.”
“You can’t get participation on immigration, on guns, on voting rights. That problem remains,” Murphy added.