WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans reached a deal with Democrats on Wednesday over major outstanding issues in a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and said they are ready to vote to take up the bill. An evening test vote was possible.
Lead GOP negotiator Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio made the announcement at the Capitol, flanked by four other GOP senators, including Susan Collins of Maine, who have been in talks with Democrats and the White House on the bipartisan package.
“We now have an agreement on the major issues,” Portman said. “We are prepared to move forward.”
Sen. Krysten Sinema, D-Arizona, a lead Democratic negotiator, said she spoke Wednesday with President Joe Biden and he was “very excited” to have a deal. For days, senators and the White House have worked to salvage the bipartisan deal, a key part of Biden’s agenda.
The outcome will set the stage for the next debate over Biden’s much more ambitious $3.5 trillion spending package, a strictly partisan pursuit of far-reaching programs and services including child care, tax breaks and health care that touch almost every corner of American life, and that Republicans vowed to oppose.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, opened the Senate on Wednesday announcing a possible test vote on the bipartisan package later in the evening. It will require 60 votes in the evenly split 50-50 Senate to proceed to consideration of the legislation, meaning support from both parties. That would launch a potentially days-long process to consider the bill, and any possible amendments.
Before the announcement, the Republican senators met Wednesday morning with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who appears to have given his nod to proceed to consider the emerging legislation. Standing outside McConnell’s office to announce the agreement, Portman said McConnell “all along has been encouraging our efforts.”
Democrats, who have slim control of the House and Senate, face a timeline to act on what would be some of the most substantial pieces of legislation in years. The bipartisan package includes about $600 billion in new spending on highways, bridges, transit, broadband, water systems and other public works projects.
Filling in the details has become a month-long exercise ever since the senators struck an agreement with Biden more than a month ago over the broad framework. There remains work to do as they draft the legislative text.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who has been central to talks, said, “That doesn’t mean every ‘t’ is crossed, every ‘i’ dotted, but on the major issues we are there.”
Ten Republicans would be needed to join all Democrats to advance the bipartisan bill past a filibuster toward passage, but it has been an open debate among Republicans whether it’s politically advantageous to give their support.
Republican senators sparred at their closed-door lunch Tuesday, one side arguing against doing anything that would smooth the way for Democrats’ broader bill, according to a person granted anonymity to discuss the private meeting. Others spoke in favor of the bipartisan package.
House Democrats have their own transportation bill, which includes much more spending to address rail transit, electric vehicles and other strategies to counter climate change. At a private meeting of House Democrats on Tuesday, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called the Senate’s bipartisan measure complete “crap,” according to two Democrats who attended the session.
Senators in the bipartisan group have been huddling privately for weeks. The group includes 10 core negotiators, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, but has swelled at times to 22 members.
Transit funding has remained a stubborn dispute, as Republican senators are wary of formalizing what has been a typical formula for the Highway Trust Fund allotting around 80 percent for highways and 20 percent for transit.
Most Republican senators come from rural states where highways dominate and public transit is scarce, while Democrats view transit as a priority for cities and a key to easing congestion and fighting climate change. Democrats don’t want to see the formula dip below its typical threshold.
Expanding access to broadband, which has become vital for households during the coronavirus pandemic, sparked a new debate. Republicans pushed back against imposing regulations on internet service providers in a program that helps low-income people pay for service.
Democrats were insisting on a prevailing-wage requirement, not just for existing public works programs but also for building new roads, bridges, broadband and other infrastructure, but it’s not clear that will make the final package. The senators had been debating money for public water works projects and removal of lead pipes after Romney raised questions about the amount. He said Tuesday the issue had been settled.
Still unresolved is how to pay for the bipartisan package after Democrats rejected a plan to bring in funds by hiking the gas tax drivers pay at the pump and Republicans dashed a plan to boost the IRS to go after tax scofflaws.
Funding could come from repurposing COVID relief aid, reversing a Trump-era pharmaceutical rebate and other streams. It’s possible the final deal could run into political trouble if it doesn’t pass muster as fully paid for when the Congressional Budget Office assesses the details.
Story by Lisa Mascaro and Kevin Freking. Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Josh Boak and Tali Arbel contributed to this report.