Politics

Will Bickering About Scheduling Kill the Senate Infrastructure Deal?

Or is it a sign that this bipartisanship was never on solid ground to begin with?

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer speaks during a news briefing the U.S. Capitol, July 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer speaks during a news briefing the U.S. Capitol, July 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

On June 24, Senate Republican and Democratic negotiators joined President Biden for a White House celebration of their “deal” on a long-sought bipartisan infrastructure package worth about $600 billion. Aging centrists were practically breakdancing in ecstasy outside the Oval Office at how sure a thing this was.

Now, nearly a month later, the Senate is preparing for a first procedural vote—to open floor debate on this deal that was supposedly all wrapped up—for Wednesday. It appears likely to fail.

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The proximate explanation for why the procedural vote—which needs the support of 60 senators— could go down is a very Senate one: aggressive scheduling. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced late last week that the vote to open the infrastructure debate would be held Wednesday. The preparatory discussions about the bill were seemingly endless, so Schumer was trying to use the calendar to force the negotiators to wrap things up.

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Republicans declared themselves disgusted by Schumer’s move. There was no way, they argued, that the legislative text of the infrastructure bill could be ready in time for the Wednesday deadline. Members of the committee were (and are) still negotiating both the particulars of infrastructure spending and the ways to pay for it. Just this weekend, for example, one of the pay-fors Republicans most strongly objected to, beefing up IRS enforcement to collect unpaid taxes, was dropped, creating a sizable funding hole for negotiators to fill.

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Schumer tried to offer some leeway around the deadline in his floor speech Tuesday morning, and he emphasized that a finished bill needn’t be a prerequisite for opening debate. The Senate could open debate Wednesday on a placeholder bill, and if negotiators finalized their text by Thursday, Schumer would offer it as the pending substitute amendment—i.e., whatever they agreed on would replace the underlying text of the shell bill. If they couldn’t agree by then, Schumer would offer another amendment consisting of some other infrastructure bills that have passed out of committee.

Even then, though, he said, “if the bipartisan group finalizes their product over the weekend, Senators can offer it as an amendment at that point.” The Wednesday vote, he said, “is not a final deadline for legislative text. It is not a cynical ploy. It is not a fish-or-cut-bait moment. It is not an attempt to jam anyone.” It’s just to get things rolling.

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Republicans were wholly unpersuaded. According to Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the lead Republican negotiator, there will not be “a product ready tomorrow for consideration.” And if that’s the case, Republicans are not going to vote to open debate.

“I can’t say we will have every Republican” voting against opening debate, the GOP whip, Sen. John Thune, said Tuesday. But, he said, Schumer “is not going to get 60” votes.

It might, in fact, be that every Republican votes against moving forward on Wednesday. Even the five Republican negotiators who most want the deal are prepared to strike it down.

“There’s absolutely no reason why he has to have the vote tomorrow, and it does not advance the ball,” Maine Sen. Susan Collins told reporters. “It does not achieve any goal except to alienate people.”

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“I think there’s a unanimous point of view that we shouldn’t vote on a motion to proceed until people know what the summary is of the bill,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said. “They haven’t seen the numbers, they haven’t seen the pay-fors. A small group of us have, but the overall group hasn’t.”

So would Romney vote against opening debate on Wednesday?

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“I think we all will,” he said. “When I say ‘unanimous,’ that includes me.”

Barring some late breakthrough—or a decision by Schumer to move the vote—the vote will fail on Wednesday. That doesn’t have to be the end of the bipartisan infrastructure deal. Schumer could bring it back up next week, or in two weeks, or whenever. He didn’t bite Tuesday afternoon when asked whether he would bring it up again, or ditch it and move on to that other piece of big July business: passing a multi-trillion dollar budget that paves the way for a partisan reconciliation bill this fall.

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“We want to get both the bipartisan bill done, and the budget reconciliation process done,” Schumer told reporters, “and we’re hopeful that our Republican colleagues will realize that the best way to do that is voting yes—voting yes—on the motion to proceed.”

There is more than a little kayfabe at play in this indignant back and forth about scheduling. A $600 billion, bipartisan package is not going to live or die because people couldn’t resolve their differences about whether to hold a procedural vote on a Wednesday or the following Monday, when senators won’t even be in town for most of the days in between. If the vote fails on Wednesday, the bill’s revival depends on how much each side wants—or needs—it.

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This particular bill is the key to the Democrats’ “two-track” strategy, in which the Senate is supposed to pass a bipartisan “hard” infrastructure bill that’s popular enough to overcome the filibuster, accompanied by a Democratic mega-bill passed through reconciliation. The whole plan was developed in the first place because some centrist Democratic senators—and more of them than just West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema—wanted to show they could achieve something big on a bipartisan basis before they were willing to proceed with another partisan spending bill. How those centrists feel about moving ahead to reconciliation after Wednesday’s vote, versus giving the bipartisan bill more time to develop, will help determine how Schumer proceeds.

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On the Republican side, there’s never been widespread enthusiasm for working with Joe Biden and Democrats on a big spending bill. These negotiations have only ever centered around securing 10 Republican votes—one-fifth of the Republican conference—to vote for a final product. They’re worried how it will look if they do pass their bipartisan infrastructure product, and it gives Democratic moderates cover to advance their looming $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. If the procedural vote fails, the Republicans who were friendly to the infrastructure bill can live with the comfortable talking point that Democrats blew it up because they never wanted a bipartisan deal. They won’t have to go any further down a path that was politically murky to begin with.

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Procedural votes fail sometimes. In March of last year, as Congress was rushing to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, Democrats filibustered the CARES Act as they sought to secure a better deal before moving forward. It was not the end of the world, or of the bill. Both sides still felt they needed to pass something, and failure was not an option with the economy rapidly shutting down. The CARES Act ultimately passed on a vote of 96 to 0.

If the procedural vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill fails, and the bill is never considered again, history will not record its cause of death as “different points of view on scheduling.” The Senate just didn’t want it, or need it, enough.

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