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As a bipartisan plan comes together, what's next on infrastructure?

Bipartisan breakthroughs offer some excitement, but getting infrastructure done will be like threading a needle while riding a bike on a bumpy road.


As the week got underway, all available evidence suggested the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure framework -- affectionately referred to in some circles as "BIF" -- was unraveling. Negotiators were bickering, deadlines were ignored, hurdles appeared insurmountable, and senators were starting to point fingers, assigning blame for failure.

And then a deal came together anyway.

A major infrastructure package passed a key test vote Wednesday in the Senate, just hours after a bipartisan working group announced a deal after more than a month of negotiating. The Senate voted 67-32 to begin debate on the measure, getting 17 Republicans to sign on, more than the 10 needed to break a filibuster.

There's a lot to unpack, so let's do another Q&A.

I'm feeling a little déjà vu.

That's understandable. On June 24 -- five weeks ago today -- President Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of senators reached an agreement on the broad outline of an infrastructure plan. When the relevant players tried to fill in the gaps with the details, the process ran into trouble, leading to a month of negotiations over the plan that had already been negotiated.

So what did they agree to?

A package that includes $550 billion in new spending to build roads, public transit, broadband, clean-water initiatives, and other White House infrastructure priorities. The New York Times ran a good overview.

How would it be paid for?

At Republicans' insistence, the plan does not raise taxes on the wealthy or big corporations, and unlike the agreement from June, it also doesn't generate new revenue through IRS enforcement of existing tax laws. Instead, the negotiators settled on a plan that relies on a combination of repurposed COVID aid funds, a change in the Medicare Part D rebate rule, and "dynamic scoring," which accounts for expected gains through new investments.

Do those numbers add up?

Probably not. How much the senators care is an open question.

Regardless, $550 billion in new spending sounds quite a bit lower than what Biden originally had in mind.

The White House did, in fact, give up quite a bit in order to reach a bipartisan agreement, but Team Biden was determined to make a deal and it considers yesterday's breakthrough a significant win.

So the plan is finally on track? For real this time?

Maybe. The good news for those hoping to see the infrastructure package succeed is that it cleared an important procedural hurdle yesterday with plenty of votes to spare. This is the same procedural step Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) tried to clear last week, when it received zero Republican votes. Yesterday, in contrast, the revised plan received support from 17 GOP senators.

But all kinds of difficult hurdles remain, and there will be plenty of opportunities for the framework to fail.

I seem to recall hearing about a two-track process, of which this is only part.

Right. While the bipartisan package slowly advances, Democrats are also working on a companion measure that focuses on "human infrastructure" -- health care, child care, housing, et al. -- which would pass by way of the budget reconciliation process. The approach would prevent the Republican minority from killing it with a filibuster.

Also note, while the bipartisan plan includes some elements related to the climate crisis -- there's funding, for example, for vastly expanding our network of electric vehicle charging stations -- the bulk of the White House's climate agenda would be addressed through the reconciliation package.

And how's that bill coming together?

Slowly. Right now, there is no bill to speak of, though there's a broad agreement to pursue a $3.5 trillion plan. But this poses all kinds of challenges, too: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) announced yesterday she won't support a package with that price tag -- the Arizonan didn't say what she wanted to cut or why -- which in turn is likely to cause trouble in the Democratic-led House, which already sees the $3.5 trillion investments as a compromise.

What's more, if the reconciliation bill falls short, the whole infrastructure initiative will collapse because the two tracks are tied together.

So what's next?

On the bipartisan plan, senators will start looking for a score from the Congressional Budget Office, while preparing possible amendments. On the reconciliation plan, Senate Democrats will also move forward with a new budget resolution, which will make it possible to pass the larger, more ambitious package.

What's the timeline?

Schumer wants to see the bipartisan bill and a new budget resolution pass the Senate before members leave Capitol Hill for their summer break, which is scheduled to begin on Aug. 9 (if not sooner). What's more, the White House has set a deadline for the end of September, when some existing surface transportation programs are scheduled to expire, at which point Biden wants to see both packages on his desk.

As we discussed in June, getting this done will be like threading a needle while riding a bike on a bumpy road. A lot can go wrong, and the margins of error effectively do not exist. Watch this space.