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The Senate’s infrastructure gamble, explained

The future of the Senate’s two-track strategy on infrastructure is uncertain.

Majority Leader Tees Up Uncertain Wednesday Senate Vote On Infrastructure
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks during a Senate Democrat policy luncheon press conference at the US Capitol on July 20, 2021.
Tom Brenner/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Senate Democrats are navigating a tricky balancing act: attempting to simultaneously advance both a $600 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion budget resolution full of Democratic priorities that’s only expected to garner partisan support.

This plan, which has colloquially been referred to as the “two-track strategy,” is intended to demonstrate that lawmakers can actually work across party lines to get something done on “hard” infrastructure, like roads and airports, and that Democrats can also deliver on “human” infrastructure that’s a party priority but that Republicans won’t support, like funding for long-term caregiving and paid leave.

It is a somewhat circuitous approach to approving infrastructure legislation, driven by the focus that moderate Democrats, and President Joe Biden, have put on bipartisanship — as well as their refusal to alter the filibuster.

Democrats from the get-go could have simply passed one bill including their key provisions via budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority. But they’d need all 50 members of the caucus, and moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) have said they wouldn’t consider that approach without an attempt to do a bipartisan measure first.

So, bipartisanship. But that measure wouldn’t be enough for Democrats, even if it does pass. They’ve instead allocated many of their additional priorities, such as universal pre-K and extensions to the child tax credit, to a reconciliation measure, because Republicans have said firmly that they won’t be supporting them in a bipartisan bill.

The next two weeks will be telling for the two-track strategy: So far, there are no guarantees on either track. On Wednesday, the bipartisan bill failed to get the 60 votes it needed to make it through a procedural vote, because the text for the legislation isn’t done yet and Republicans have said they won’t vote on opening debate until it is. Schumer, meanwhile, has emphasized that on other bills like the Innovation and Competition Act, and the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, Congress has voted to proceed to debate even without the full text.

The partisan track is uncertain, too: Senate Democrats have yet to announce an agreement on the budget resolution outline, though Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told reporters on Wednesday that he felt they’d meet Schumer’s deadline to do so before the end of the day.

Things could still work out in both cases, but it depends a lot on what happens in the next week.

A group of 11 moderate Republicans have said they’d vote in favor of advancing bipartisan legislation by Monday, if they come to a deal by then. Senate Democrats, too, could rally behind their budget measure at that point.

Neither is a sure thing, though — an indication of how delicate an approach this particular strategy requires.

How the two-track solution will work, in theory

If Schumer pulls off the strategy — and that’s an enormous if — then Congress could effectively open the door to $4.1 trillion worth of new spending before lawmakers take their recess for the month of August.

A lot has to go right between now and then, however.

The first step is to advance the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. Now that the Wednesday procedural vote has failed, it remains to be seen whether the outcome will be different for a potential Monday vote on the bill. Moderate Republicans have said that they opposed opening debate on the legislation on Wednesday because it wasn’t fully written at that point; so far, the negotiators have yet to finalize an agreement and produce legislative text. Republican negotiators have said they intend to support the bill if it comes up for another vote on Monday, if a deal is actually struck. Whether they will reach this agreement, though, isn’t yet certain.

“I am hoping that Sen. Schumer will have the vote on Monday when we’ve had a chance to resolve any remaining, outstanding issues,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), a member of the bipartisan negotiating group, told CNN.

Schumer had previously said that he scheduled the Wednesday vote this week to pressure negotiators to make progress on the legislation. He’s also emphasized that such practices have been used on other bills in the past, and that it’s not uncommon to open debate on a measure before the text is completed.

Although there’s still no legislative text, the BIF — as its outline lays out — focuses on what’s considered more traditional infrastructure. Of the $579 billion in new spending it contains, there’s $312 billion for transportation, $109 billion for roads and bridges, $55 billion for water infrastructure, and $65 billion for broadband infrastructure, among its provisions. It does not, however, include funding for long-term caregiving or a number of the climate measures that were part of Biden’s original American Jobs Plan.

At this point, lawmakers still have to vote on opening up debate on the legislation, as well as on the legislation itself. If the final legislation is filibustered, all 50 Democrats plus at least 10 Republicans, or some other combination of a bipartisan group, would be needed to meet the 60-vote threshold to approve the bill.

All of this is happening as Democrats weigh their budget resolution, which has $3.5 trillion in funding and includes an array of climate provisions as well as massive expansions to the social safety net. This measure would fund universal pre-K, paid family and medical leave, and an extension of the child tax credit. Wednesday is also the deadline that Schumer gave the Democratic caucus to unite and agree on this resolution, which Sanders has spearheaded.

In order for that bill to pass via budget reconciliation, a process that allows spending- and tax-related bills to advance with a simple majority, Schumer needs all 50 members of his caucus to agree on both approving the resolution and the final bill.

The measures in the budget bill will also need to be reviewed by the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, who can strip out provisions that she thinks are not relevant to taxing and spending. (Earlier this year, MacDonough ruled that a $15 minimum wage, for instance, could not be included in a budget bill.)

Democrats need to vote on the budget resolution — basically, instructions for what a bill should contain — first, as part of this process, since that lays out the areas the final legislation will cover. And Schumer has said he intends for them to do so before the August recess. Once they approve this resolution, lawmakers will have to write the actual budget bill, which won’t get a floor vote until later this year.

That means Congress will probably vote on the final bipartisan bill and the budget resolution around the same time, and then consider the final budget bill slightly later.

The two-track solution could work — but it has some major hurdles to overcome

There are a number of factors that will determine whether Schumer’s game of legislative maneuvering ends in the passage of both bills, just one, or none at all.

On the BIF front, keeping the support of at least 10 Republicans is dicey. Firstly, the bipartisan group has to agree on the legislative text: Recent disagreements have centered on the role that IRS enforcement should play in funding the measure.

The initial plan was to spend $40 billion bolstering IRS enforcement in order to generate $140 billion in new tax revenue — but then conservative groups marshaled their resources against that (since it could result in crackdowns on wealthy individuals and companies evading taxes) and Republicans caved. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) said IRS funding was out of the bill, leaving a $100 billion funding gap for the bipartisan group to fill.

Barring an agreement on the pay-fors by next week — a nonnegotiable for Republicans who want the measure to be debt-neutral — the bipartisan measure has little chance of moving forward. If the differences between lawmakers get worked out, 11 Republicans have said they’ll back the measure.

Meanwhile, House Democrats are also unlikely to consider the bipartisan plan without any more progress on the budget resolution.

In June, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House will not take up any bipartisan infrastructure deal until Senate Democrats have passed their budget resolution, as a guarantee to progressives that supporting the bipartisan bill will not result in a dead end for their other priorities. She has not backed down so far, and progressives in the House are unlikely to support the BIF if they think Senate Democrats will not be able to pass the $3.5 trillion budget measure.

If the budget resolution gets through the Senate, House moderates could still be a source of opposition, too. Democrats can only afford to lose four votes and still have the resolution pass, and several key moderates have not yet made their opinion known on the size and scope of the budget bill, per the New York Times. But watering down the bill could, in turn, push away progressives.

On the Senate side, Democrats similarly need to keep the entire caucus together. So far, signs are hopeful: Manchin is expected to support the budget bill so long as it is paid for and he approves of the energy and climate provisions, according to the Hill, though that could change.

Simply put, there is no certainty that this two-track strategy will work.

In the event that the bipartisan agreement fails, Democrats could still attempt to pass all the infrastructure priorities via reconciliation. But at that point, maintaining Democratic unity on whatever that bill looks like would continue to be a major challenge.

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