Senate $3.5 trillion infrastructure “vote-a-rama” hits wee hours

Washington — Democrats pushed their expansive $3.5 trillion framework for bolstering family services, health and environment programs toward Senate passage overnight Wednesday as Republicans unleashed an avalanche of amendments aimed at making their rivals pay a price in next year’s elections.

The process is referred to in Washington as a “vote-a-rama.”

Congressional approval of the budget resolution, which seems assured, would mark a crucial first step by Democrats toward enacting the heart of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda. It would open the door to a follow-up measure aiming the government’s fiscal might at assisting families, creating jobs and fighting climate change, with higher taxes on the wealthy and big companies footing much of the bill.

Passage of the budget resolution is critical because in the 50-50 Senate, it would let Democrats alone approve the subsequent bill actually enacting their $3.5 trillion in spending and tax policies over the next decade. Approval of the budget would shield the follow-on legislation from Republican filibusters, procedural delays that kill bills.

Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democratic leader, announced Tuesday that the chamber would return from recess August 23 to vote on that blueprint and perhaps other measures. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, has praised the budget resolution.

The Senate turned to the budget minutes after it approved the other big chunk of Mr. Biden’s objectives: a compromise $1 trillion bundle of transportation, water, broadband and other infrastructure projects. That measure, passed 69-30 with McConnell among the 19 Republicans backing it, now needs House approval.

In contrast, every Republican present was opposed as the Senate voted 50-49 to begin considering the $3.5 trillion budget. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., missed the roll call to be with his ailing wife.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent who was once a progressive voice in Congress’ wilderness and is now a national figure with legislative clout, said the measure would help children, families, the elderly and working people – and more.

“It will also, I hope, restore the faith of the American people in the belief that we can have a government that works for all of us, and not just the few,” he said.

Republicans argued that Democrats’ proposals would waste money, raise economy-wounding taxes, fuel inflation and codify far-left dictates that would harm Americans. They were happy to use Sanders, a self-avowed democratic socialist, to try tarring all Democrats backing the measure.

If Biden and Senate Democrats want to “outsource domestic policy to Chairman Sanders” with a “historically reckless taxing and spending spree,” Republicans lack the votes to stop them, conceded Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. “But we will debate. We will vote.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, assured progressives that Congress will pursue sweeping initiatives going beyond the infrastructure compromise. It was a nod to divisions between the party’s moderates and liberals that he and Pelosi will have to resolve before Congress can approve their fiscal goals. Democrats also control the House, but very narrowly.

“To my colleagues who are concerned that this does not do enough on climate, for families, and making corporations and the rich pay their fair share: We are moving on to a second track, which will make a generational transformation in these areas,” Schumer said.

“Vote-a-rama” takes center stage

In a budget ritual, senators plunged into the “vote-a-rama,” a nonstop parade of messaging amendments that often becomes a painful all-night ordeal. The Senate had held roll calls on more than two dozen of them as midnight came and went, more than 10 hours after the process began.

With the budget resolution largely advisory only, the goal of most amendments wasn’t to win but to force the other party’s vulnerable senators to cast troublesome votes that can be used against them in next year’s elections, which will decide congressional control.

Republicans crowed after Democrats opposed GOP amendments calling for the full-time reopening of pandemic-shuttered schools, boosting the Pentagon’s budget and retaining limits on federal income tax deductions for state and local levies. Those deduction caps are detested by lawmakers from upper-income, mostly Democratic states.

Republicans were also happy when Democrats opposed restricting IRS access to some financial records, which McConnell’s office said would prompt political “witch hunts,” and when Democrats showed support for Mr. Biden’s now suspended ban on oil and gas leasing on federal lands, which Republicans said would prompt gasoline price increases.

One amendment may have boomeranged after the Senate voted 99-0 for a proposal by freshman Senator Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Republican, to block federal funds for any municipalities that defund the police. That idea has been rejected by all but the most progressive Democrats, but Republicans have persistently accused them of backing it.

In an animated, sardonic rejoinder, New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker called Tuberville’s amendment “a gift” that would let Democrats “put to bed this scurrilous accusation that somebody in this great esteemed body would want to defund the police.” He said he wanted to “walk over there and hug my colleague.”

Senators also voted overwhelmingly for an amendment proposed by Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley calling for the hiring of 100,000 more police officers, according to Bloomberg News. The tally was 95-3. Majority whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, thanked Hawley for backing the police-hiring program Durbin said Mr. Biden created when he was a senator.

Republicans claimed two narrow victories with potential long-term implications, with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, one of the chamber’s most conservative Democrats, joining them on two nonbinding amendments.

One indicated support for health care providers who refuse to participate in abortions. The other voiced opposition to teaching critical race theory, which considers racism endemic to American institutions. There’s scant evidence that it’s part of public school curriculums.

$3.5 trillion package’s provisions

The budget blueprint envisions creating new programs including tuition-free pre-kindergarten and community college, paid family leave and a Civilian Climate Corps whose workers would tackle environmental projects. Millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally would have a new chance for citizenship, and there would be financial incentives for states to adopt more labor-friendly laws.

Medicare would add dental, hearing and vision benefits, and tax credits and grants would prod utilities and industries to embrace clean energy. Child tax credits beefed up for the pandemic would be extended, along with federal subsidies for health insurance.

Besides higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, Democrats envision savings by letting the government negotiate prices for pharmaceuticals it buys, slapping taxes on imported carbon fuels and strengthening IRS tax collections. Democrats have said their policies will be fully paid for, but they’ll make no final decisions until this fall’s follow-up bill.