Senate Republicans blocked moving forward on a bipartisan infrastructure bill that’s still being negotiated on Wednesday. Surprisingly, members of the group insist they’re unbothered.
The vote amounted to a setback to a key priority of President Joe Biden, although members of both parties expect at least one more try in the coming days. GOP centrists say they may be willing to provide the votes as early as Monday, when they think discussions will conclude over a bill expected to provide nearly $600 billion.
“We’re a no today because we’re not ready,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the lead Republican negotiator. “We’re saying we do want to take up this bill as soon as we are, and we think that’ll be Monday.”
Portman organized a letter of 11 Republican senators to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) indicating Republicans will put up the votes to beat a filibuster next week. He and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the lead negotiator, also released a sunny statement in the aftermath of the failed vote pledging that a group of 12 Democrats and 10 Republicans are “optimistic that we will finalize, and be prepared to advance, this historic bipartisan proposal.”
Schumer voted against advancing the proposal, allowing him to bring it up quickly whenever the group clinches a deal. Schumer is carefully trying to give the group a chance to finally clinch its legislation, ensuring he doesn’t alienate moderate Democrats he needs to advance the rest of Biden’s priorities.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a leading Democrat in the group, said he felt “confident” their effort would have the 60 votes to advance over a filibuster by next week. Manchin said “at first I was concerned” that Wednesday’s failed vote might send “the wrong message” about the state of negotiations. But Schumer reassured him that if 60 votes exist to pass it, the vote will come up again.
Schumer “will bring this back to reconsideration if we show him we have the support,” Manchin said on Wednesday.
Republicans’ letter to Schumer stipulates they “intend to [advance] the bill pending final negotiations that are going through right now and on getting a score back” on the bill’s financing, said a Republican senator familiar with the letter. But Republican leaders remain skeptical that the conference will provide the votes to move forward until the group finally produces hundreds of pages of legislative text, which could take days, if not longer, given the difficulties in drafting legislation.
“We’re going to have to have a product. You can’t vote on a framework. There just isn’t the kind of trust around it right now that would allow that to happen,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).
The Republicans supportive of moving forward as early as Monday include Portman and GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Todd Young of Indiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Mitt Romney of Utah, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, a new addition to supporters on the GOP side.
Cramer did not sign onto the subsequent bipartisan statement on Wednesday afternoon, however. And Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a member of the bipartisan group, said he did not sign the letter to Schumer and also dropped off the bipartisan group’s statement.
“I don’t know why we would set a deadline of Monday,” Moran said. “I don’t think this is the right strategy.”
Cramer said he signed on to the letter with the hope of increasing momentum. “The letter is unbinding enough that I don’t think you box yourself in,” the North Dakota Republican said. “What the letter does is it keeps the ball in play, at least it puts a little extra encouragement to Leader Schumer to provide a little more time for the group to continue working.”
Requesting anonymity, a Republican senator said that the group’s Republicans were at risk of getting out “over their skis” by committing to an unfinished product.
Schumer set up the vote on an unfinished bill to pressure negotiators to finish up their work after months of talks among Republicans, the White House and Senate Democrats. And the Senate Democratic leader made one last case for Republican support this week, however, arguing Republicans “should feel comfortable” moving forward because there is no hard deadline to finish the bill and it could be amended once the Senate begins debate on it.
“We all want the same thing, to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill. But in order to finish the bill, we first need to start,” Schumer said Wednesday morning. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell countered that Schumer was “intent on holding a vote he knows will fail.” He called Schumer’s tactics a “stunt.”
Nearly a month ago, the 10 members of the bipartisan group celebrated their framework with President Joe Biden at the White House. But actually drafting the legislation and funding it has proven more complicated.
Last week, GOP negotiators removed IRS enforcement as a financing mechanism, after it proved too toxic with the rest of the Republican caucus. Instead, the group is eyeing delaying a rule related to Medicare to help make up the difference in funding. In addition, negotiators have yet to finalize how they’ll distribute unused coronavirus relief funds.
The larger bipartisan group of senators gathered on Wednesday for a pivotal lunch as they labor to clinch a plan to spend nearly $600 billion in new money on roads, bridges and broadband. The core 10 members of that group met late Tuesday and are close to finishing their agreement, though drafting the actual legislation will take several more days.
Portman and others briefed the larger group on the state of play, and there’s a sense within the bipartisan crew that they are nearly done with their long-running discussions. Among the remaining hang-ups are public transportation funding and financing of the bill.
Manchin said it was reasonable for Republicans to want to review those portions before committing to move forward.
“I respect that they want to see the contents of what we’re doing. So they deserve that,” Manchin said. “They have the right to see that and we’re hoping to have that for them so they’re able to make a decision on Monday.”