WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer declared last week that he will lead Congress down two tracks to pass massive infrastructure investments in both bricks-and-mortar projects and social services. But he faces a hard journey with many obstacles.
On one track is a bipartisan $579 billion bill for bridges, roads and other traditional infrastructure that will need 60 votes to pass. On the other track is a $3.5 trillion package for a more broadly defined social infrastructure that Democrats can pass without Republicans.
"I have every intention of passing both major infrastructure packages — the bipartisan infrastructure framework and a budget resolution with reconciliation instructions — before we leave for the August recess," Schumer said Thursday morning on the Senate floor.
The next two weeks could determine whether he must abandon one of the tracks — the bipartisan deal — and whether Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Senate Finance Committee chairman, can pull together a budget resolution with reconciliation instructions that Democrats approve.
But it won’t be until the fall, and possibly as late as December, that Schumer will see whether the negotiations result in Congress passing infrastructure spending — while it also works to fund the government, raise the federal debt limit and enact other top priority bills.
The legislating for both tracks is taking place in the Senate, but both the bipartisan bill and the Democrats’ package also must be approved by the House, where Democrats on the left and in the middle disagree on the size and scope of infrastructure spending.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) does not want to give a victory to Democrats but has held fire on the bipartisan bill while lambasting the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion package as a "reckless spending spree" that will raise taxes and spur inflation.
As the Senate majority leader, Schumer finds himself in a balancing act.
He must keep all the pieces in place while working with the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while giving just enough time to the bipartisan group to work while keeping the support of the progressive and moderates in his own 50-member caucus.
For Democrats, who have only the thinnest of majorities in both the Senate and House, the stakes are high.
"This is going to define what’s left of the first two years of President’s Biden time in office and a key indicator of whether Democrats are going to be successful in next year’s election or not," said Democratic consultant Jim Manley.
In the coming weeks, here is what to watch for in the infrastructure derby.
The bipartisan bill
A month ago, on June 24, a bipartisan group of 10 senators shook hands at the White House with President Joe Biden, who said that "we have a deal" on a framework for a $579 billion infrastructure plan. That group has been working since then to turn it into legislation.
To move the process along, Schumer set a deadline and held a procedural vote Wednesday to test whether the bipartisan group — now with 22 members — could provide the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster and move the framework to the floor for a debate.
It failed. But the bipartisan group led by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) got Schumer’s message and redoubled its efforts in the past few days on turning the framework into legislation.
The biggest hurdle the group faces is how to pay for it.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the second ranking Senate Republican, on Thursday set a high bar for broader party support: Legislative text that senators can review, which takes a while to produce; credible ways to pay for the projects, and a Congressional Budget Office score on the costs of those "pay fors."
Members of the bipartisan group say they’re close to finishing it, raising expectations that as soon as this weekend they could have resolved their differences and have begun writing the bill. If they do, Schumer could call for another vote as soon as Monday.
But as Schumer and Pelosi insist on tying the passage of bipartisan bill to the parallel passage of Democrats’ package, Thune said, that’s "going to be problematic, I think, for Republican votes."
The Democrats' package
On July 14, Biden and Senate Democratic leaders announced they had reached an agreement on a top-line amount of $3.5 trillion for an infrastructure package that they could pass without Republicans through an arduous parliamentary process call budget reconciliation.
This is the same process Schumer and the Democrats used to pass the $1.9 trillion relief and stimulus bill known as the American Rescue Plan that Biden signed in March.
In the first of four stages of the process, Sanders said he has begun working on language for a budget resolution that would include instructions and dollar amounts for about a dozen Senate committees to decide how to spend the funds.
"I think of it as the budget resolution is the frame of the house, and then once you set that, you move about building in the rooms, and putting the furniture in," Sen. Chris van Hollen (D-Md.), a Finance Committee member, told CNN last week.
The committees then follow those directives and develop the legislative language, something that would have to be done during the August recess so it’s ready for the Senate’s return in September. The budget committee then puts the committees’ work together in an omnibus bill.
The third stage is floor consideration of the omnibus known as the vote-a-rama. It usually starts during the day and lasts through the night as senators offer and vote on amendments, and often raise points of order to challenge whether measures are budget related.
Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth McDonough makes the final call on those challenges and can reject measures, as she did with the $15 minimum wage in the American Rescue Plan.
"Reconciliation is going to be pretty tight and they're going to be very limited on what they can do within reconciliation policy-wise that's not directly related to fiscal policy," said William Hoagland, a budget expert and senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Once that process is done, the Senate votes on the omnibus bill and sends it to the House, which likely will tweak it with minor changes. A conference committee of Senate and House leaders then resolves those differences, and both chambers vote on the bill again.
Then Biden signs it into law.
Can Schumer and Pelosi win passage for both bills given how little time they have, the many moving parts involved, the unknowns lurking out there, the partisanship of Congress, and the clashing interests of the moderates with the left and right in both parties?
"It’s very likely they can pull passing both bills, but it’s not going to be very easy," said Manley, citing intraparty rivalries and differences.
"Folks are beginning to draw their lines in the sand. Are they actually going to take it down because their pet project isn’t it?" Manley said of the bipartisan bill. "I don’t think so."
Time is an issue for the reconciliation bill as well. Congress is scheduled to go on recess after Aug. 6 and the Senate doesn’t return until September 13.
"It's going to be very tough to get it passed by August recess unless they stay in. And they may just have to stay in. Remember this also has to go to the House before we even start the process of considering reconciliation," Hoagland said.
Schumer said he might extend the Senate session further into August to vote on the budget resolution, and Pelosi said the House might have to come back in August to approve it. Then the dozen or so Senate committees must turn the resolution into legislation during a short working period in September.
Meanwhile, other must-pass issues face Congress this fall. It must approve a spending bill to keep the government open after Sept. 30. And in September or October it also must raise the debt limit, which McConnell last week opposed.
"We're talking about a confluence of events that puts all of this into a big negotiation come October, or this fall," Hoagland said, "or, as in the past, up until those snowflakes start blowing again."