WASHINGTON — With a robust vote after weeks of fits and starts, the Senate approved a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan on Tuesday, a rare coalition of Democrats and Republicans joining to overcome skeptics and deliver a cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s agenda.
The 69-30 tally provides momentum for this first phase of Biden’s “Build Back Better” priorities, now headed to the House. A sizable number of lawmakers showed they were willing to set aside partisan pressures, eager to send billions to their states for rebuilding roads, broadband internet, water pipes and the public works systems that underpin much of American life.
The weeks-long slog to strike a compromise showed how hard it has become for Congress to tackle routine legislating, even on shared priorities. But the outline for Biden’s bigger $3.5 trillion package is next up for the Senate. It is a more liberal undertaking of child care, elder care and other programs that is expected to draw only Democratic support and be debated into the fall.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act started with a group of 10 senators, including Republican Susan Collins of Maine, who seized on Biden’s campaign promise to draft a scaled-down version of his initial $2.3 trillion proposal that could more broadly appeal to both parties in the narrowly divided Congress, especially the 50-50 Senate.
It swelled to a 2,700-page bill backed by the president and also business, labor and farm interests. It drew an expansive alliance of senators and a bipartisan group in the House and it is expected to bring nearly $2 billion to Maine alone. Both of Maine’s senators backed it.
While liberal lawmakers said the package doesn’t go far enough as a down-payment on Biden’s priorities and conservatives said it is too costly, the coalition of centrist senators was able to hold. Even a barrage of broadsides from former President Donald Trump could not tank the bill.
“The infrastructure package is good for America and represents a far too rare example of the two parties working together to produce results for the American people,” Collins said. “The House should work quickly to pass it.”
The measure proposes nearly $550 billion in new spending over five years in addition to current federal authorizations for public works that will reach virtually every corner of the country, a potentially historic expenditure Biden has put on par with the building of the transcontinental railroad or interstate highway system.
There’s money to rebuild roads and bridges and shore up coastlines against climate change, protect public utility systems from cyberattacks and modernize the electric grid. Public transit gets a boost, as do airports and freight rail. Most lead drinking water pipes in America could be replaced.
“The work isn’t done, but it’s worth pausing to recognize what we just accomplished: a bipartisan bill passed through the Senate to deliver on America’s most vital infrastructure needs,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats and joined a larger group of moderate senators who championed the proposal.
Drafted during the COVID-19 crisis, the bill would provide $65 billion for broadband, a provision that Collins negotiated because she said the coronavirus pandemic showed that such service “is a necessity.” States will receive money to expand broadband and make it more affordable, with Maine expected to get $100 million initially in that policy area.
Despite the momentum, action slowed last weekend when Sen. Bill Hagerty, a Tennessee Republican allied with Trump, refused to speed up the process. Other Republican senators objected to the size, scope and financing of the package, particularly concerned after the Congressional Budget Office said it would add $256 billion to deficits over the decade.
Rather than pressure colleagues, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, stayed behind the scenes for much of the bipartisan work. He allowed the voting to proceed, and may benefit from enabling this package in a stroke of bipartisanship while trying to stop Biden’s next big effort. He voted for passage on Tuesday.
Unlike the $3.5 trillion second package, which would be paid for by higher tax rates for corporations and the wealthy, the bipartisan package is to be funded by repurposing other money, including some COVID-19 aid. The bill’s backers argue that the budget office’s analysis was unable to take into account revenue streams that will help offset costs, including from future economic growth.
Senators have spent the past week processing nearly two dozen amendments, but none substantially changed its framework.
The House is expected to consider both Biden infrastructure packages together, but centrist lawmakers including Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, urged Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring the bipartisan plan forward quickly, and they raised concerns about the bigger bill, in a sign of the complicated politics still ahead.
Story by Lisa Mascaro, AP Congressional Correspondent. BDN writers Michael Shepherd and Jessica Piper contributed to this report.