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Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Package Faces 1st Test Vote In The Senate

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's been nearly a month since President Biden and a bipartisan group of senators stood outside the White House and declared they had reached an agreement on a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. Yeah, there's still no actual bill. So Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has scheduled a procedural vote for later today as a pressure test to try and move the legislation along despite Republican objections.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: It's not an attempt to jam anyone. It's only a signal that the Senate is ready to get the process started.

MARTINEZ: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is covering the negotiations. And, Sue, what is Senator Schumer's strategy? And correct me if I'm wrong, but would it be hard to vote on a bill that does not exist?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: (Laughter) Not in the Senate. This is not an unusual procedural tactic. Republican majorities have used it. Democratic majorities have and are now using it again. The vote is essentially asking senators today if they're ready to start debate on this deal. If 60 senators vote yes, then they're on the bill until they complete it. That could take days. That could take weeks. In Senate history, it's even taken months. Schumer has assured the bipartisan senators in these talks that he'll bring up their bill for debate as soon as they hand it over to him. So he's saying with today's vote, basically, hurry up. It's not so much an attempt to derail the deal, but try to force this group to close it, which is pretty hard to do in Congress unless they're up against a firm deadline.

But I would note that Virginia Senator Mark Warner - he's a Democrat; he's one of the senators negotiating this - told reporters yesterday they wouldn't be working this hard if they didn't think they could get a deal. They've been working through weekends. They were in the Capitol till almost midnight every night this week. So there is at least some optimism that they will get there.

MARTINEZ: Why are Republicans, though, saying, not going to do it?

DAVIS: Well, senators just don't like being told what to do, especially by the majority party. But at the same time, they also agree that they're close to finishing these negotiations. Utah Senator Mitt Romney is another negotiator. He said that there had been a request from Republicans to postpone today's vote until Monday because he thinks they can tie up any loose ends with just a few more days' time, but Schumer rejected that request. Patience is wearing thin among a lot of Democrats to get moving on this Biden agenda.

One of the outstanding holdups that senators are facing is how to pay for the new spending in this bill. It's got about $600 billion in new money, just one example of the partisan disagreements here. Democrats had wanted to give the IRS more money to enforce tax laws because if they have more money for enforcement, they can bring in more revenue...

MARTINEZ: OK.

DAVIS: ...Which Democrats estimated could be about $100 billion. And that would've covered about a sixth the cost of this deal. Democrats - or Republicans rejected that. They were under pressure from anti-tax groups and conservative activists who aren't really interested in seeing an emboldened IRS. So they are now looking to find alternatives.

MARTINEZ: Now, OK, if the Senate does not agree to move forward on the bill today, I mean, is that it? Does that mean deal dead?

DAVIS: Well, the bipartisan group says no. And, of course, the majority leader can always try again and bring it back to the floor. But it certainly wouldn't be interpreted as a good sign about the fate of the bill. Some Republicans who were initially supportive of this deal have also wavered a bit publicly because Democrats are linking passing this bill to a separate budget bill they're working on right now that could spend as much as $3.5 trillion to expand the federal government. And there is unified Republican opposition to that legislation in the Senate. So there's a lot of political tactical strategy going on here, complicating when these bills can pass and how and if Republicans will support them.

MARTINEZ: You know, since you brought it up, what's the status of that budget bill?

DAVIS: Well, notably, Schumer has also set a separate deadline for today for all 50 Democrats just to agree among themselves that they will vote yes to when they bring up a budget resolution to move forward on that $3.5 trillion bill. Most Democrats are on board with this. It's a top priority for the Biden administration. But as always, we're watching those key moderate swing votes, like Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He has not committed to supporting it, at least not publicly. Schumer wants both of these bills out of the Senate before August recess because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she's not going to bring them up until the Senate proves it can act.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Susan, thanks.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.