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Republicans Block Infrastructure Bill but Talks to Continue

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2 days ago Kristina Peterson, Andrew Duehren
a group of people standing next to a person in a suit and tie © shawn thew/EPA/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON—Senate Republicans blocked an effort to begin debate on a bipartisan infrastructure deal still under negotiation Wednesday, but lawmakers said they expected to close in on a final agreement by early next week.

The vote failed, with 49 in favor and 51 against, short of the 60 needed to open debate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) switched his vote to no, which he said gave him the option to bring the bill up again.

Senate Democratic leaders had hoped to start the process Wednesday of moving both the infrastructure bill and a separate $3.5 trillion package of child care, education, antipoverty and climate provisions expected to pass with only Democratic votes.

On Wednesday night, President Biden said he remained confident that the Senate will vote next week to move forward with consideration of the bill. “I think we’re going to get it done,” Mr. Biden said during a CNN town hall in Cincinnati, Ohio. Mr. Biden said Wednesday’s failed procedural vote was irrelevant.

The failed vote Wednesday pushed the timeline for both deeper into the summer, although lawmakers involved in the infrastructure negotiations said they expected to have enough of an agreement in place to move forward by Monday, if Senate Democratic leaders agree to schedule another vote.

“We’re voting ‘no’ today because we’re not ready, but we’re saying we do want to take up this bill as soon as we are—we think that’s Monday,” Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio), the lead GOP negotiator in the infrastructure talks, said Wednesday.

The president praised Mr. Portman while in his home state, calling the lawmaker a good man.

A group of 11 Republicans involved in the talks sent Mr. Schumer a letter indicating they would all vote to begin debate on Monday, lawmakers said. That would be enough for the bill to clear the 60-vote threshold, provided all Democrats also voted in support.

“We have made significant progress and are close to a final agreement,” the bipartisan group of 22 senators said in a statement after the vote. “We will continue working hard to ensure we get this critical legislation right—and are optimistic that we will finalize, and be prepared to advance, this historic bipartisan proposal to strengthen America’s infrastructure and create good-paying jobs in the coming days.”

Republicans had warned for days that they wouldn’t vote to start consideration of the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package while key details remain unresolved.

“People basically have an objection to voting for something that they don’t know what they’re voting for,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R., La.), a part of the bipartisan group working to flesh out the loose infrastructure framework that 21 senators struck with the White House last month.


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Democrats said they were confident that Mr. Schumer’s decision to schedule the Wednesday vote had sped up the infrastructure negotiations.

“I’ve never seen the Senate ever do anything in advance of a deadline,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.), a member of the bipartisan group. He noted that bills in the past had failed early procedural votes before later advancing.

The infrastructure bill has been mired in disagreements over how to find sources of revenue to offset its cost. The bill is expected to spend roughly $600 billion over projected federal spending on roads, bridges and broadband access, among others. Over the weekend, lawmakers agreed to drop a provision disliked by Republicans to raise money by beefing up the Internal Revenue Service’s collection of unpaid taxes.

Senators said Wednesday that they were close to sorting out other methods of paying for the bill and smoothing out disputes over funding, including how much to put toward public transit, with Democrats pushing for a greater share dedicated to it.

“We wouldn’t be continuing this effort if we didn’t think we would get there,” Mr. Warner said.

To try to fill some of the funding shortfall created by dropping the IRS provision, lawmakers are looking at repealing or further delaying a Trump administration proposal to curb rebates that pharmacy-benefit managers pay to drugmakers and plans. The Congressional Budget Office has previously determined that the provision would cost the federal government roughly $180 billion over a decade.

Liberal Democrats have said they would not vote for the infrastructure bill unless they have assurances there is sufficient support to pass the $3.5 trillion antipoverty package. But a Wednesday deadline to test whether all 50 members of the Democratic caucus will coalesce around a framework for the $3.5 trillion package also slipped as the infrastructure talks continued.

Democrats plan to pass the $3.5 trillion package through a special process tied to the budget, known as reconciliation. That enables them to advance the legislation with just a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes most bills need in the Senate. But in the 50-50 Senate, they can’t afford even a single defection from among their own ranks.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D., Va.), a member of the Senate Budget Committee, said he had not heard any Democratic pushback to the $3.5 trillion figure or the way lawmakers plan to divide it among committees as they write a budget resolution, the first step toward passing the full package.

“I was in the room when we sold why this was a good deal and I haven’t heard any Dems express concern. There’s going to be a lot of negotiation over the programmatic elements and those negotiations will largely take place within the committees,” he said Tuesday. “But on the $3.5 [trillion] and on the general allocation of top lines to committees, I think we’re in pretty good shape.”

So far centrist Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, in addition to a few others, have yet to commit to the budget resolution.

Sen. Angus King (I., Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, said conversations around the $3.5 trillion bill were continuing. He said there was no firm deadline from Democratic leadership to agree to the bill.

“In general I think that the proposal makes sense, there’s been no explicit ‘Do you agree with everything in it?’” he said. “I think it’s a strong proposal, that doesn’t mean I’m married to every single item,” he said.

Mr. Schumer said the Senate wouldn’t break for its traditional August recess until Democrats had reached an internal agreement.

“We’re going to have Democratic unity on a budget resolution with reconciliation instructions and we’re not going to go home until we do,” he said Tuesday.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com and Andrew Duehren at andrew.duehren@wsj.com

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