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Bipartisan infrastructure deal sails through first Senate vote

The Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure deal finally moved forward on Wednesday night after weeks of grueling negotiations, handing a group of centrists and President Joe Biden a major win.

Though the legislation is still unfinished and failed just a week ago, more than a dozen Republicans took the plunge and voted to break an initial filibuster on the bill. Among them was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has previously said “100 percent” of his focus was on standing up to Biden’s agenda.

But even as the Senate agreed to begin considering the bipartisan framework, final passage remains uncertain. Republicans will demand amendment votes and input on the bill, and it will once again face a 60-vote hurdle to close debate. The Senate may even work through the weekend to make progress on the proposal and its $550 billion in new spending as August recess approaches.

“I want to commend the group of senators who worked with President Biden,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) after the vote. “My goal remains to pass both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a budget resolution this work period. Both. It might take some long nights, it might eat into our weekends, but we are going to get the job done. And we are on track.”

Ahead of the vote, Schumer pleaded for full party support to advance the bill, which many progressives have reservations about, at a lunch for all 50 Democrats, according to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. Afterward, Schumer professed confidence that the Senate was finally ready to move forward.

Wednesday’s breakthrough comes a month after negotiators originally said they had a deal on infrastructure. In the end, it took weeks to finalize the details between a bipartisan group of 10 senators and the White House, and even on the day of the vote the bill was still being written.

But Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the GOP point man on the deal, said Wednesday morning that the group and the administration had resolved key issues and that he and other negotiators were ready for the Senate to consider the agreement. Negotiators acknowledge that many steps remain before the legislation heads to Biden’s desk, but they celebrated Wednesday’s vote as a win for bipartisanship.

“At a time when Washington seems broken, this group of members … came together, along with others, and decided we are going to do something great for our country,” Portman said. “Despite the popularity of it, and the need for it, Washington hasn’t been able to get it done. This time we’re going to get it done.”

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the lead Democratic negotiator, attributed Wednesday’s successful vote to the negotiators who were “deeply committed to demonstrating to the country and to the world that our government can work.” Sinema further thanked every senator who voted to move forward, saying they demonstrated “a commitment to show that bipartisan[ship] is alive and well and works in our country.”

The White House on Wednesday also declared victory. In a statement released ahead of the vote, Biden said the deal showed “our democracy can function, deliver, and do big things.”

According to a detailed summary of the bill obtained by POLITICO, the bill uses $205 billion in unused coronavirus aid money as its main financing mechanism. Other major revenue sources include $53 billion in unused unemployment benefits, $49 billion for delaying a drug rebate rule and even $56 billion in expected economic growth. A key question is whether Republicans will be able to swallow those as legitimate funding sources after demanding the bill be fully paid for.

Schumer in the end kept all 50 members of the Democratic caucus together, including progressives who had reservations about the deal.

“There’s a discussion we need to have about infrastructure. So I think it’s time,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “There are things I like and there are things I really don’t like.”

Many Senate Republicans are skeptical of the bipartisan framework and want to see legislative text and details about whether the bill is fully financed before moving forward. Committee chairs and ranking members have also expressed frustration with the process.

And now that the effort is advancing, its supporters will need to fend off divisive amendments and navigate it to a place where at least 60 senators feel satisfied enough to cut off debate and send it to the House, where its fate is uncertain.

“This idea of getting on a bill that’s still being written is still a bad idea,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a close McConnell adviser. “We’re going to insist upon amendments because this bill’s been negotiated by 20 people but there are 80 other senators.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi hasn’t been briefed on the bipartisan deal and wouldn’t rule out amending it if it came over to the House, she told reporters at lunchtime Wednesday. Pelosi and other top House Democrats are under significant pressure from some within their caucus — like Transportation Chair Peter DeFazio — to ensure the Senate deal isn’t completely void of House priorities.

“I can’t commit to passing something that I don’t know what it is yet,” Pelosi told reporters Wednesday. “But I’m hoping for the best.”

Privately, though, Democrats admit it’s highly unlikely the House would try to make changes to the Senate deal, noting the White House’s opposition to reopening the negotiations after the fact. Pelosi also reiterated her promise to not even consider the bipartisan bill until the Senate passes a Democratically backed reconciliation package, leaving the timing in flux for when a deal would even reach Biden’s desk.

Schumer has long insisted that the Senate will pass the bipartisan infrastructure package and the budget blueprint for the $3.5 trillion social spending before leaving for the August recess.

Tanya Snyder and Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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