A deep dive into where Congress is at on the infrastructure bill

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It might have been a perfect weekend for a getaway, but the Senate was busy mainly on the ostensibly bipartisan infrastructure bill. It could eventually mean lots of work for nearly every federal agency. Loren Duggan, Bloomberg Government editorial director, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin with a summary to date, and what’s ahead.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Loren, review what happened over the weekend and where everything goes from here with, of course, a lot of recess for half the Congress.

Loren Duggan: Right. Well, the House has been gone for more than a week and the Senate has continued on working on some of the big legislative items they want to get done as part of not only their agenda, but President Joe Biden’s agenda. So most of this time has been spent on the bipartisan infrastructure deal that was announced several weeks ago at this point, but it took time to get to the fine-tuned legislative details to turn that into text and then process it through the Senate. And as we saw this weekend, one senator can do a lot to hold up a bill. And we saw that from Senator Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, who didn’t give them agreement to move forward quickly and process this bill in a matter of hours, he wanted them to take the full amount of time on some of these procedural votes. So, that’s what took up a great deal of time this weekend on that infrastructure bill. And that sets up a another debate on a much larger package, $3.5 trillion in spending, they’re going to set up the procedural aspects of that before they leave on recess in the Senate, and then have the fuller debate on that once they get back sometime in the fall.

Tom Temin: Golly. So the weekend came and went, but they did not get that infrastructure bill over the line.

Loren Duggan: Well they made a lot of progress on the infrastructure bill. They had a lot of procedural steps to get through. And under the rules of the Senate, one person can hold it up, and that happened this time. Even though there’s wide bipartisan agreement on this, a lot of Republicans have backed it. Obviously, Republicans were part of the negotiating team, and then many more Republicans backed the procedural votes when they happened over the weekend. So again, things can take a lot of time in the Senate. And there’s a lot of ‘hurry up and wait,’ getting to some of these key votes that they had to take.

Tom Temin: Got it. So then the Senate will continue to work this week?

Loren Duggan: That’s right. The goal before they leave is to pass, or adopt, I guess they would say, a budget resolution, setting up this reconciliation bill later on. This is one of the weird items in the Senate that doesn’t take 60 votes to cut off debate, because of the budget rules that they operate under, they only need a simple majority to get this through. Now, as we know, in a 50/50 Senate, that means you need all 50 Democrats to back this resolution in order for it to get through. So that gives every Democrat a lot of leverage here to make sure that they get their vision of this budget resolution written so that it can get through and over the finish line. And it will require at some point, Vice President Kamala Harris probably to come in and break a tie so that it would be 51/50 in the end. But this is a procedural prelude to the substantive riding of this $3.5 trillion bill that will happen later in the year. And then obviously, both of these bills — the infrastructure bill, and this budget resolution setting up reconciliation — will head over to the House, which will have to process it at some point in time, but likely not for several more weeks, given that they’re out until Sept. 20 at this point.

Tom Temin: Right. So the Senate will work until when, then?

Loren Duggan: Probably most of this week. We’ll see if that clears them to go. There’s obviously a lot more on their agenda, whether it’s executive and judicial nominees that the president sent over. There’s some members who were interested in having a vote on voting and election changes before they go away on the summer recess. We’ll have to see if there’s appetite among senators to keep going or to leave town, have their vacations, be with their families, or even take trips around the country and the world if that’s what they had set up for the summer.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so given the fact that the House won’t be back for several weeks, more than a month, then nothing will happen on infrastructure or that 3.5…what’s the name of the $3.5 trillion thing?

Loren Duggan: I don’t know that we have one yet. But it’s referred to often as the soft infrastructure or the human infrastructure bill. And these are ideas around child care and health care, and making some changes possibly to the Medicare program — a lot of democratic priorities will go into that. Some climate change provisions may even wind up in there. So, we’ll have to see what they assemble together. It’s gonna be a tough road for both of these bills, potentially in the House. So, just the Senate’s adoption of the budget resolution and passage of infrastructure isn’t the end of either of those things, but kind of just a middle step, because the House has its own issues to work through with a very narrow majority over there. We don’t tend to focus on the narrow majority. But there is a very narrow one for Democrats there of are 222 [to], I think it’s 212 right now.

Tom Temin: Sure. Yes. And of course, that latest bill that we’ve been talking about that’s on the immediate agenda, 2,701 or 2,702 pages, depending on which account of it — the PDF I had, had 2,701. Any comments coming from the Hill on the fact that nobody even expects anyone to have read all of this whatsoever?

Loren Duggan: Well, there were many drafts that were floating around before they got to the final one. So I think members had a sense of what was in it and obviously the ones negotiating had a pretty good feel. But you’re right, it’s a large bill to get through and you just can’t read a page necessarily and figure out what it’s doing. Sometimes you have to go back to the code, sometimes you have to look at another piece of legislation that passed many years ago. Our team at BGov spent a lot of time looking at that bill and trying to digest it as quickly as possible to tell readers what was in it. But it’s a tall order when you get to 2,700-plus pages on a piece of legislation. So, time may help other members digest it and find things and go from there.

Tom Temin: And in the meantime, you mentioned the House won’t be back until mid September or so. And of course, that all makes very late, towards a federal normal $1.4 trillion, let’s say regular, discretionary budget. So there’s no way that’s going to happen in time to avoid a continuing resolution at this point.

Loren Duggan: Right. We’re going to be looking at a continuing resolution at some point in September paired likely with the debate over what to do with the debt limit, because that is back in force after being suspended for a couple of years, and Congress will have to figure out what to do there. That will be tough as well, because Republicans in the Senate don’t want to go along with that. So they may need to use that budget reconciliation process to push that through, and that will take time as well. So, I think we’re gonna have a lot of things combining and colliding in late September. We’ve seen some progress on appropriations — nine of the 12 bills passed by the House, we’ve had the first three out of the Senate Appropriations Committee, but there’s no agreement on how much to spend in total, or how much then to spend on each bill and program. So we’re at probably several more months of negotiations before we can wrap up that important legislation.

Tom Temin: Any authorizations that are lagging? And then there’s the NDAA which they tried to get finished by Sept. 30.

Loren Duggan: That’s right. And that’s one of the things we will see some members come back into town for the House in the next few weeks. I believe it’s Sept. 1 they’ll be marking up their version of the National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate authorizing committee has already put forward its version. So that one’s rolling along as well. That one doesn’t have to be done by the 30th, that sometime slips into later in the year. And then one of the authorizations that’s relevant to this infrastructure debate is the highway or surface transportation bill that expires Sept. 30. So with the debate continuing on the infrastructure legislation, we may have to see a short term extension of highway programs to keep the money flowing to states there.

Tom Temin: Loren Duggan is editorial director of Bloomberg Government.

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