Infrastructure deal: Senate votes to start work on $1T bill

(AP) — The Senate voted Wednesday night to begin work on a nearly $1 trillion national infrastructure plan after President Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of senators reached agreement on major provisions of the package that is a key part of his presidential agenda.

Biden welcomed the accord as one that would show America can “do big things” — with the most significant long-term investments in nearly a century, he said, on par with building the transcontinental railroad or the Interstate highway system.

“This deal signals to the world that our democracy can function,” Biden said in a statement. “We will once again transform America and propel us into the future.”

The rare bipartisan showing, on 67-32 vote, signaled the interest among senators in starting the process to consider the infrastructure package. But it’s unclear if enough Republicans will eventually join Democrats to support final passage. The procedural step Wednesday night is expected to launch lengthy consideration.

Lead GOP negotiator Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio announced the bipartisan group’s agreement earlier at the Capitol, flanked by four other Republican senators who have been in weeks of talks with Democrats and the White House on the package.

That group has worked with the White House to salvage the deal, a first part of Biden’s big infrastructure agenda. Swelling to more than 700 pages, the bill includes $550 billion in new spending for public works projects.

In all, 17 Republican senators joined the Democrats on Wednesday in voting to launch the debate, but most remained skeptical. The GOP senators were given a thick binder of briefing materials during a private lunch, but they asked many questions and wanted more details.

According to a 57-page GOP summary obtained by The Associated Press, the five-year spending package would be paid for by tapping $205 billion in unspent COVID-19 relief aid and $53 billion in unemployment insurance aid some states have halted. It also relies on economic growth to bring in $56 billion, and other measures.

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. Republicans strongly oppose that bill, and may try to stop both.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer opened the Senate announcing a possible evening vote, nudging talks along. It takes 60 votes in the evenly split 50-50 Senate to proceed for consideration and ultimately pass the bill, meaning support from both parties.

Giving that a boost, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell announced late Wednesday he would vote to proceed, though whether he will support the final bill remains uncertain. The Republican negotiators met with McConnell earlier Wednesday and Portman said the leader “all along has been encouraging our efforts.”