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Senate Votes to Begin Work on Nearly $1T Infrastructure Bill

Mon August 02, 2021 - National Edition
The Associated Press

The U.S. Senate voted July 28 to begin efforts to pass President Joe Biden's almost $1 trillion national infrastructure plan, a sudden move following an agreement between the White House and a bipartisan group of senators on major provisions of the package weeks ago.

Biden's plan, key to his administration's agenda, includes the most significant long-term investments in nearly a century, he said, on par with building the transcontinental railroad or the Interstate highway system.

He welcomed the Senate's accord as one that would show America can "do big things."

"This deal signals to the world that our democracy can function," Biden said to the Associated Press and other news outlets ahead of the procedural vote. "We will once again transform America and propel us into the future."

With a 67-32 vote to start formal Senate consideration, after weeks of stop-and-go negotiations, the rare bipartisanship displayed the high interest among senators for an infrastructure deal. But it is unclear if enough Republicans will eventually join Democrats to support final passage.

Senate rules require 60 votes in the evenly split 50-50 chamber to proceed for consideration and ultimately pass this bill, meaning support from both parties.

Lead GOP negotiator Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio announced the bipartisan group's agreement on the $1 trillion package at the Capitol earlier that day. Portman was joined by four other Republican senators who had been in talks with Democrats and the White House.

After voting, Portman said the outcome showed that bipartisanship in Washington can work and he believed GOP support would only grow.

The bill itself is more than 700 pages long and includes $550 billion in new spending for public works projects, the AP reported.

Although 17 Republican senators joined the Democrats in voting to launch debate on the bill, most remained skeptical.

According to a 57-page GOP summary obtained by the AP, the five-year spending package would be funded by tapping $205 billion in unspent COVID-19 relief aid and $53 billion in unemployment insurance money some states have halted. It also relies on economic growth to bring in $56 billion as well as other measures.

Giving the vote a boost, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell announced late in the day he would vote to proceed, though whether he will support the final bill remains uncertain. Portman said the Senate's top Republican "all along has been encouraging our efforts."

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a lead Democratic negotiator who talks often with Republicans, spoke with Biden and reiterated the president's optimism over the bill's passage when she said she hoped the vote's results showed "our government can work."

Democrats, who have slim control of the House and Senate, face a timeline to act on what would be one of the most substantial pieces of legislation in years.

Filling in the details has been an arduous task ever since a bipartisan group of senators struck an agreement with Biden in June over the framework of the broad infrastructure bill.

The AP noted that the package's new spending dropped from about $600 billion to $550 billion as money was eliminated for a public-private infrastructure bank and was reduced in other categories, including transit.

Still, the package includes $110 billion for highways, $65 billion for broadband and $73 billion to modernize the nation's electric grid, according to a White House fact sheet.

Additionally, there is $25 billion for airports, $55 billion for waterworks and more than $50 billion to bolster infrastructure against cyberattacks and climate change. Another $7.5 billion is set aside for electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.

Both political parties have battled over how to pay for the package. Earlier in the negotiations, Democrats rejected a plan to collect funds by hiking the gas tax drivers pay at the pump, and Republicans dashed an effort to boost the Internal Revenue Service to go after tax scofflaws.

Along with repurposing the COVID-19 relief and unemployment aid, the AP reported other revenue would include the sale of broadcast spectrum, reinstating fees that chemical companies used to pay for cleaning up hazardous waste sites and drawing $49 billion from reversing a Trump-era pharmaceutical rebate, among other sources.

Despite the fact the final deal could run into political trouble if it does not pass muster as fully paid for when the Congressional Budget Office assesses the details, Portman assured reporters the package will be "more than paid for."

Over in the House, Democrats have their own transportation bill, which includes much more spending to address rail transit, electric vehicles, and other strategies to counter climate change.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had not committed to supporting the package, and said she would wait to do so after she had a chance to see its details. She noted, though, that she is "rooting for it."

"I very much want it to pass," she said in remarks to the AP.

A recent poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC found eight in 10 Americans favor some increased infrastructure spending.

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