The Senate gave overwhelming bipartisan approval on August 11 to a $1 trillion infrastructure bill to rebuild the nation’s deteriorating roads and bridges and fund new climate resilience and broadband initiatives, delivering a key component of President Joe Biden’s agenda. The vote, 69 to 30, was uncommonly bipartisan. The yes votes included Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and 18 others from his party who shrugged off increasingly shrill efforts by former President Donald Trump to derail it. “This historic investment in infrastructure is what I believe you, the American people, want, what you’ve been asking for for a long, long time,” President Biden said from the White House as he thanked Republicans for showing “a lot of courage.” Senator McConnell, who publicly declared that his priority was stopping the Biden agenda, said in a statement that “I was proud to support today’s historic bipartisan infrastructure deal and prove that both sides of the political aisle can still come together around common-sense solutions.” The measure faces a potentially rocky and time-consuming path in the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a majority of the nearly 100-member Progressive Caucus have said they will not vote on it unless and until the Senate passes a separate, even more ambitious $3.5 trillion social policy bill this fall. That could put the infrastructure bill on hold for weeks, if not months.
The recently passed infrastructure bill is one of the largest passed by the Senate in recent years. It would be the largest infusion of federal investment into infrastructure projects in more than a decade, touching nearly every facet of the American economy and fortifying the nation’s response to the warming of the planet. Funding for the modernization of the nation’s power grid would reach record levels, as would projects to manage climate risks. Hundreds of billions of dollars would go to repairing and replacing aging public works projects. With $550 billion in new federal spending, the measure would provide $65 billion to expand high-speed internet access; $110 billion for roads, bridges, and other projects; $25 billion for airports; and the most funding for Amtrak since the passenger rail service was founded in 1971. It would also renew and revamp existing infrastructure and transportation programs set to expire at the end of September.
Its success, painstakingly negotiated largely by a group of Republican and Democratic Senators in consultation with White House officials, is a vindication of President Joe Biden’s belief that a bipartisan compromise was possible on a priority that has long been shared by both parties, even at a moment of deep political division. “This is what it looks like when elected leaders take a step toward healing our country’s divisions rather than feeding those very divisions,” Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), a key negotiator, said before the bill’s passage. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), said that “everyone involved in this effort can be proud of what this body is achieving today — the Senate is doing its job.”
With a bipartisan victory pocketed, Democrats turned immediately to a more partisan venture, a second social policy package that would fulfill the remainder of their spending priorities. The Senate’s $3.5 trillion social policy budget, which is expected to pass along party lines later in the week, will allow Senate committees to draft legislation packed with policies to address climate change, health, education, and paid family and medical leave, and pass it over the threat of a filibuster. It will also include tax increases and is expected to generate unanimous Republican opposition. “Despite this long road we’ve taken, we have finally, finally reached the finish line,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). But, directing his comments to colleagues eager to take up unaddressed priorities, he added, “We are moving on to a second track, which will make a generational transformation.”
The Senate vote capped a grueling, months-long negotiation between the Biden administration and Senators in both parties over the scope and size of an infrastructure bill. After an abbreviated effort to work with Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), on a plan that could win backing from Republican leaders, President Joe Biden turned his focus to a group of 10 moderate Republicans and Democrats who had helped strike the compromise that paved the way for a postelection pandemic relief package in December. The Senators and top White House officials spent weeks debating how to structure and finance the legislation over late-night meals, virtual meetings, and phone calls. Even after the group triumphantly announced an outline in June, it took a month to translate that framework into legislation. Along the way, the effort appeared on the brink of collapse, after it failed a test vote in the Senate and former President Donald Trump sniped at it from the sidelines, trying to persuade Republicans that they would pay a steep political price for supporting it.
“When we have more people on both sides of the aisle who want to do things in a partisan way, as opposed to figuring out how we can work together, I don’t think that’s in the best interests of the country,” Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), one of the key negotiators, said in an interview. “It was really important for the continued relationships within the Senate that are so important to getting things dome. Negotiators were particularly bedeviled by the question of how to pay for their plan. Republicans declared that they would not support any legislation that raised taxes and rejected a proposal to beef up IRS enforcement against tax cheats, and Democrats ruled out raising user fees for drivers.
Democrats and President Joe Biden, who had initially proposed a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, made significant concessions. The package includes far less funding than they had wanted for lead pipe replacement, transit, and clean energy projects, among others. To finance what remained, analysts said the government would most likely have to borrow heavily. On August 5, the Congressional Budget Office said the legislation would add $256 billion to the deficit over 10 years, contradicting the claims of its authors that their bill would be fully paid for. That is nearly half of the new spending in the legislation, which includes a patchwork of measures purported to raise revenue to pay for it, including repurposing unspent pandemic relief funds, more tightly regulating cryptocurrency and delaying carrying out a Trump-era rule that would change the way drug companies can offer discounts to health plans for Medicare patients.
The infrastructure bill also carries major policy changes. It amounts to a tacit, bipartisan acknowledgment that the country is ill-prepared for a worsening climate. Billions of dollars would be invested in projects to protect homes from weather calamities, move vulnerable communities out of harm’s way and support new approaches to countering climate change. It also includes $73 billion to update the nation’s electricity grid so it can carry more renewable energy, $7.5 billion to construct electric vehicle charging stations, $17.5 billion for clean buses and ferries, and $15 billion for removing lead pipes. The agreement targets critical resources toward underserved communities, although not as much as President Joe Biden had requested. It would direct $1 billion over five years, slightly more than half of it in new federal funding, to a program to help reconnect communities divided by highway construction, as well as millions of dollars to help improve access to running water in tribal and Alaska Native communities.
The infrastructure bill also includes money to restore lakes across the country, $66 billion in new funding for Amtrak, and more funding for programs intended to provide safe commutes for pedestrians. It also creates a $350 million pilot program for projects that reduce collisions between vehicles and wildlife. The bill dedicates an increasing amount each year for grants to clean up drinking water by removing lead-contaminated pipes and making other infrastructure upgrades. The legislation reserves at least $25 million per year for “small and disadvantaged communities.” In the days before the measure passed, senators engaged in a last-ditch attempt to allow some exemptions to strict tax regulations on cryptocurrency brokers that had been included in the original bill, after pushback from senators in both parties. But without agreement on other amendments, negotiators ultimately failed to secure unanimous consent to make those changes.
Despite the fact that the infrastructure bill passed the Senate by a decent margin, legislation faces a tricky path in the House, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly said she will not take it up until the Senate clears the reconciliation bill. The House has also passed its own infrastructure bill, which includes more money for climate change mitigation and nearly $5.7 billion to pay for 1,473 home district projects, or earmarks, that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee vetted. A handful of moderate Democrats have urged House Speaker Pelosi to avoid delaying a stand-alone vote on the bipartisan agreement. But leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in a letter to Pelosi, warned that a majority of its 96 members confirmed they would withhold their support for the legislation until the second, far more expansive package cleared the reconciliation process in the Senate.