Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s gamble on infrastructure failed on Wednesday, handing the New York Democrat his first major legislative defeat since his party took control of the chamber earlier this year.
In a party-line vote, the motion to begin debate on the nascent $1.2 trillion infrastructure package was defeated in a Republican filibuster. The majority leader’s rout was entirely self-inflicted.
“He was too eager for a win,” said one senior GOP aid close to bipartisan talks on the infrastructure deal, which are still ongoing. “The majority leader tried to strong-arm Republicans, who have been out there defending the deal publicly, to vote for it even though it was unfinished.”
While Mr. Schumer came up short in the past, most notably in June on an electoral overhaul only favored by Democrats, infrastructure is different.
The deal, which is the product of an eclectic mix of moderate lawmakers — five Democrats and five Republicans — has significant bipartisan support. It’s also widely popular because of its subject matter: fixing the nation’s roads, bridges, seaways and airports.
Under normal circumstances, the package should have received enough support from Republicans to overcome a filibuster.
“We have enough Republicans, 10-or-12 Republicans that are supportive of going on the bill,” said Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, one of the bipartisan lawmakers behind the deal.
Mr. Schumer, however, attempted to rush a vote on the deal before it was even finished being written. Mr. Romney and a select group of moderates from both parties worked late into the night on Tuesday attempting to finalize the package.
“They’re talking about big projects and big sums of money,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “But these discussions have yet to conclude. There’s no outcome yet, no bipartisan agreement, no text, nothing for the congressional budget office to evaluate, and certainly nothing on which to vote, not yet.”
A particular sticking point has been on how to finance all of the new construction projects without raising taxes. The bipartisan group of senators proposed that more than $570 billion of the overall package come from new revenue, while the rest of the money comes from repurposed coronavirus relief funds.
According to Mr. Romney, most of the issues of how to pay for the new spending were being resolved. The final deal just needed more time to come together.
Lawmakers had urged Mr. Schumer to postpone the vote until early next week.
“I can’t predict, but we’ll have the agreement, in my view, completed over the weekend,” said Mr. Romney.
Mr. Schumer, though, was not content to wait for the deal to be finalized.
“I have been very clear about what this vote is,” the majority leader said. “This vote is only the first step in the legislative process … [it] is not a deadline to have every final detail worked out… The bipartisan group of senators will have many opportunities to make their agreement the base of the bill, even if they need a few more days to finalize the language.”
The majority leader’s hardball tactics on infrastructure underscore the political and practical concerns facing Democrats.
Congress only has less than two weeks left before heading off for a month-long break. Letting GOP lawmakers leave town before taking an initial vote in support of the package is likely to doom the entire deal.
Democrats fear that sending Republicans home without being on record in favor of the deal will bleed away potential supporters. Vulnerable Republicans are likely to face pressure to oppose the deal by constituents, advocacy groups and the conservative grassroots over the August recess.
What’s more, when Congress does return, it must pass the annual spending bills needed to keep the government running past a Sept. 30 deadline. Allowing infrastructure to get bogged down with such vital legislation, potentially setting up a situation where Mr. Schumer will be forced to trade one to get the other.
The potential for such an event was raised on Tuesday when Mr. McConnell predicted that GOP lawmakers were unlikely to support raising the federal debt ceiling in the fall.
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