GOP blocks Senate infrastructure debate, raising doubts over deal

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WASHINGTON – Republicans on Wednesday barred the Senate from adopting an emerging bipartisan infrastructure plan, raising doubts over the fate of a major item on President Biden’s agenda even as negotiators continued to seek compromise.

The failed vote underscored the intense mistrust between the two sides, which complicated efforts to secure a deal. Republicans and deal-seeking Democrats say they are still making progress towards a deal on a package of nearly $ 600 billion in new funding for roads, bridges, railroads, transit. common and other infrastructure, which could be the first major injection of federal public funds. expenditure on works since the 2009 stimulus law.

New York Democrat and Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer forced the vote in a bid to step up pressure for a speedy resolution of the talks, acting on calls from centrist Republicans who said they needed to more time to consolidate their deal with the Democrats. While many Democrats fear Republicans will prolong the process just to deny support for a final bill, he argued there was still time to work out the final details.

“This vote is not a deadline to sort out all the final details – it is not an attempt to block anyone,” Schumer said ahead of the vote, adding that negotiators would have “many opportunities. “add their plan to the bill” even if they need a few more days to finalize the language.

But Republicans said they weren’t ready to commit to considering an infrastructure measure and warned that putting the issue to a vote risked scuttling a possible bipartisan breakthrough. As they shuttled back and forth between meetings and votes on Wednesday, Republican negotiators said a final deal could emerge in the next few days, about a month after triumphantly announcing a deal on a framework.

“We are optimistic that once we pass this vote today, we will continue our work and be ready in the next few days,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine and key negotiator. She said members of the group “think we’ll be largely ready on Monday.”

With 50 Senate Republicans opposed, Democrats did not get the 60 votes that would have been needed to move a debate on infrastructure forward. The 50-member Democratic caucus initially voted to continue, but Mr Schumer changed votes to allow him, under Senate rules, to raise the measure again.

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It was a gloomy start to what Democrats had hoped would be a period of intense activity on Capitol Hill, with action on a bipartisan infrastructure measure and a much more ambitious $ 3.5 trillion partisan budget plan. which would include money to fight climate change, expand health care and education, and expand child care and paid leave.

Instead, senators spent Wednesday expressing frustration over their inability to begin debating the infrastructure plan and meet privately to discuss the details of the package’s structure and financing. In a joint statement after the vote, 22 senators involved and briefed on bipartisan efforts said they were optimistic about the possibility of closing the deal and vowed to continue working over the next few days.

“We understand that this is a legislative process and that it is underway,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters aboard Air Force One. The administration, she added, was “encouraged by the progress and grateful for the work of the Democrats and Republicans involved.”

Republicans, including the five negotiators who participated in talks on a compromise, argued Democrats threatened their progress by rushing a vote on the package before the deal was ready. Democrats questioned why Republicans, many of whom have said they want a bipartisan compromise on infrastructure, would not be willing to simply allow a debate to move forward while negotiations continue.

Both sides had long been concerned about the political ramifications of an agreement underlying these accusations. Democrats, especially progressives, have long feared Republicans dragging out negotiations to force concessions and then ultimately denying their support.

Republicans fear they will find themselves prematurely locked into a deal with Mr. Biden that members of their own party – many of whom strongly oppose expensive federal spending – might reject.

Yet even though they voted unanimously against the maneuver, several Senate Republicans said they would support a deferred vote as early as Monday if a deal could be reached by then. At least 11 Republicans – enough to overcome an obstruction if all Democrats and Independents agreed – prepared a letter to Mr Schumer making the pledge, though it was not clear on Wednesday whether he received it.

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For Republicans who negotiated the infrastructure deal with Democrats, voting no on Wednesday was a calculated bet that they could quickly complete the text and that it could be brought up for another vote. If they strike the deal in the next few days, they would still have to convince enough of their colleagues to support the measure for it to cross the 60-vote threshold for obstruction.

“This is not a breach of agreement,” said Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah and other negotiator. “It’s just a matter of making sure we have an agreement in place, between all parties, before we actually vote to move on to the bill.”

“We have to go as fast as possible,” he added. “I’m not criticizing the pressure to move – it’s the nature of the job.”

Since announcing their agreement on an initial framework, a bipartisan group of 10 senators and senior White House officials have discussed the details of a comprehensive package that is expected to deliver $ 1.2 trillion over eight years, with 579 billion dollars in new funding for roads, bridges, broadband and highways in addition to the continuation of existing transportation programs, which committee leaders have widely accepted outside of talks.

But the failure of the vote has still frustrated some Liberal Democrats, who have repeatedly warned of what they see as the mistakes of 2010, when they delayed votes on the Affordable Care Act in the UK. hope of Republican votes that never saw the light of day. They argued that Democrats can easily fit the new spending on roads, bridges, broadband and highways into the larger spending program that is expected to take shape in the coming weeks.

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“It’s been too long – we’ve wasted several months,” Washington Democrat Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the progressive caucus, said on Tuesday before the vote. “The plan is always to delay, delay, delay and wait until you get to an August break.”

Virtual negotiations between the top 10 senators and senior White House officials extended into the late evening most evenings this week, and on Tuesday an in-person meeting with fajitas, tacos and wine ensued. ended when the last senators left just before 11 p.m.

They continued on Wednesday, as the group of senators met for lunch and briefed a group of Senate allies and representatives Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, and Brian Fitzpatrick, Republican of Pennsylvania, the leaders of the nation- saying House Problem Solvers Caucus.

Lawmakers remain at odds over how to maintain funding levels for existing transit programs. The group of key negotiators must also finalize funding for the comprehensive measure, with Republicans in particular reluctant to support legislation that is not fully paid for.

During the weekend’s talks, negotiators dropped a provision that would strengthen the IRS’s enforcement to collect unpaid taxes due to a conservative backlash. Instead, they’re now debating the terms of rescinding a Trump-era rule that changes the way drug companies can offer discounts on optional Medicare patient health plans.

Democrats are also working to define the contours of the $ 3.5 trillion budget plan, which will unlock the fast-track reconciliation process and allow party leaders to advance the rest of their economic priorities on a simple majority vote, bypassing the Republicans. This sketch is unlikely to emerge until Budget Committee staff members know whether to incorporate elements of the bipartite framework, which would increase the cost of the whole.

“Our job right now is to move this thing forward as quickly as possible,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent in charge of the budget committee. “I hope that by early August we have a budget proposal to vote on and do what the American people want.”

Nicolas fandos, Jonathan weisman, and Jim Tankersley contributed reports.

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