Senators are spending this first week of August debating and digesting a 2,700-page infrastructure bill drafted by a bipartisan group of senators and the White House. In this alert we'll look at how the bill came together, what happens next, and what an agreement may signal for other congressional work this year.
Is infrastructure really something on which both parties can agree?
Replacing old bridges, repairing failing roads, expanding airports, and even providing broadband are popular on both sides of the aisle. However, that optimism has failed to translate into law over the last few sessions of Congress. Most recently, in 2020, Congress and the White House failed to reach agreement on a broad set of infrastructure proposals, in large part over how to pay for them. So, what changed this time?
With his American Jobs Plan, President Biden sought to restart the debate, and the House and Senate committees of jurisdiction set out once again to write legislation. Early signals have been positive. The Senate EPW committee unanimously passed a water infrastructure bill in April, and a month later unanimously reported the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act out of committee, 20-0. The Senate Committees on Energy, Commerce, and Finance also passed relevant infrastructure bills.
And this time, in a break from the usual process, a bipartisan group of senators took hold of those committees' bills and negotiated the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF) among themselves and the administration over several weeks.
Notably, the committees of jurisdiction and their associated expertise were generally left out of the negotiations. Some so-called institutionalists in Congress have questioned whether a complicated bill that does not come about via regular order can succeed. Others point out that previous attempts via regular order had failed, while so far, this latest approach has not, and the prospects of this bill becoming law are looking good.
Is it too late to make changes to the bill?
With a supportive coalition of Senate Democrats, enough Senate Republicans to meet the 60-vote threshold to end any attempt at a filibuster, and the backing of the White House, significant changes to the bill while it is on the Senate floor are unlikely, absent the support of the chairman and ranking member of the committee of jurisdiction. Several hundred amendments are expected to be filed before debate concludes, but relatively few will be voted on.
It is possible, given the current recess schedule, that the House will not take up the bill before members return from their current recess on September 20. Advocates and opponents will use that time to push for their favored positions. With House Republicans generally opposed, Speaker Nancy Pelosi will need to hold her narrow majority together to pass the Senate bill. For now, Pelosi has said she will not schedule a vote on the BIF until there is clarity that a full reconciliation process on a separate $3.5 trillion investment in social and climate programs will also be enacted. That may require additional time, and resolution could very well slip until late in the year.
Would passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill mean Congress is functioning again?
Does drinking a diet soda while spending three hours at an all-you-can-eat buffet help you lose a few pounds? Nor does passage of the infrastructure bill mean Congress is functioning smoothly again. The partisanship in this Congress and the 50-50 Senate split remain, the forthcoming 2022 elections are already on the radar, and more divisive policy battles lie ahead. However, there are some things worth watching closely.
The work of the bipartisan group of 20+ senators may lead to stronger cross-party relationships and some greater output, but Congress is built to advance legislation through official committees, not ad hoc groups. The institutional challenges Congress is dealing with today did not arise overnight, and they are as likely to get worse in the near term as they are to improve. But infrastructure enjoys broad support not seen in other areas. Any bipartisan goodwill developed among the senators these past weeks is unlikely to overcome the partisan currents that are flowing strongly in Congress as members move on to other matters in the coming months.
As the Senate considers a limited number of amendments to move the bill to final passage, we are studying the debate closely and will continue to provide updates. Subscribe to our infrastructure mailing list and be among the first to receive our analysis, or contact our authors directly with any questions you have about the infrastructure bill as the debate continues.