Senate Republicans block infrastructure plan debate, for now

Negotiators from both parties are struggling to complete details of the US$579 billion (S$790 billion) infrastructure package. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Senate Republicans blocked debate on a vast and still-unfinished infrastructure plan, rejecting Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's drive to forge ahead while negotiators from both parties struggle to complete details of the US$579 billion (S$790 billion) package.

The 49-51 vote fell well shy of the 60 needed to begin debate. Schumer switched his vote to "no" so he can call up the Bill again.

Centrist Republicans involved in the negotiations said they need more time to hammer out the details.

By early next week, they said, there should be enough votes to bring up the proposal.

"We have the number of Republicans necessary to succeed with the cloture vote on Monday or Tuesday," GOP Senator Mitt Romney of Utah said on Wednesday (July 21) before the Senate action.

He said "almost everything" has been resolved in the talks, which have bogged down in discussions over how to pay for the legislation.

Schumer's decision to force the early test vote on Wednesday afternoon spurred a faster pace in protracted talks, which began almost a month ago when a group of 22 senators involved in negotiations announced agreement with President Joe Biden on the general outlines of the plan.

Before the vote, Schumer pointed out that the full Senate this year began its work on China competitiveness legislation and on a hate-crimes measure while the final text for those intiatitives was still being ironed out.

"There's no reason we can't repeat that process here on infrastructure," he said.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the vote a "stunt" by Schumer. The Kentucky Republican added that Schumer can try again once he has 60 votes.

Biden prediction

A deal would mark a significant breakthrough in the drive for a massive infusion of money for roads, bridges and other critical projects like expanded broadband Internet service and improvements to power grids.

Biden, appearing at a union electrical training centre in Cincinnati, Ohio, was asked if he will get an infrastructure deal.

"Yes, we will" Biden said on Wednesday.

Still, any negotiated package faces significant hurdles in both chambers.

In the Senate, with its 50-50 partisan split, the deal may not go far enough to gain support of all Democrats, who have narrow control of the chamber, and it will need 60 votes to get past any filibuster by opponents. Just 11 GOP senators aided the negotiations and agreed on its framework.

Getting impatient

In the House, where Democrats currently have a four-vote majority, it may be opposed by some progressive Democrats who want more infrastructure resources and assurances that a larger partisan economic will pass the Senate, and by some Republicans who say it spends too much.

Some Democrats in the House and Senate are growing impatient with the negotiations, and are advocating dropping the talks and adding the infrastructure package to a planned US$3.5 trillion economic measure they could pass under Senate procedures without GOP support. But taking that route would be a blow to attempts by Schumer and Biden to show voters that Democrats can find some common ground with Republicans.

The bipartisan talks are led by GOP Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Public transportation continues to be a hold up in negotiations. Senate Banking Committee chairman Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said the top Republican on his panel, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, wants to shrink the share of funding for transit to below 20 per cent of what is allotted from the federal highway trust fund. That compares with its historic share of 20 per cent.

"It's awfully hard to get an agreement when, when one of the two players doesn't particularly support the whole concept of public transit," Brown said.

Toomey has not confirmed the specifics of what he's seeking, but Romney defended the idea of lowering the allocation.

"We already added with various Covid relief Bills about US$65 billion. We are adding another US$49 billion," Romney said.

"The question going forward is in the baseline. Is it that 80/20 split between highway and transit or is it 82/18?"

Speaking on Fox Business Network on Wednesday, Toomey said about half of recently infused transit funds have gone unspent. He wants the Banking Committee to hold hearings and votes on transit before the bipartisan deal gets to the Senate floor, a suggestion that could delay Senate action into the fall.

"It's like people think this is Monopoly money around here. That's a problem, if you ask me," Toomey said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.