Republicans scramble to secure infrastructure support ahead of failed vote

Centrist Republicans are rushing to lock down sufficient GOP support to move forward next week on their bipartisan infrastructure plan, even as Wednesday’s vote to advance the framework is expected to fail.

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the lead negotiator, has rounded up nearly a dozen GOP yes votes for early next week, according to multiple sources familiar with the effort. Portman has been working on a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowing to move forward after Wednesday’s likely stumble, but he has not publicly released it yet. Some Republicans said they were under the impression it was sent to Schumer by midday Wednesday.

The letter stipulates that Republicans “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.

“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, 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.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a member of the bipartisan group, said he did not sign the letter.

“I don’t know why we would set a deadline of Monday,” Moran said. “I don’t think this is the right strategy.”

Portman and other Republicans want to demonstrate to Schumer that Republicans will move forward, just not on Wednesday. Schumer set up the vote on an unfinished bill to put pressure on the negotiators to finish up their work after months of talks among Republicans, the White House and Senate Democrats.

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 skies” by committing to an unfinished product.

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.

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.”

Asked if he could support moving forward next week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) replied: “I’m hoping so. I’m hoping we can have all the pay-fors accounted for and it adds up. Everybody is working really hard. I’m hoping we’re close enough that we can all confidently vote” to break the initial filibuster. Rounds, another member of the working group, said that he would vote to proceed next week provided the group has a “gentleman’s agreement.”

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 will gather 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.”

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