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Within minutes of passing a sweeping $1tn infrastructure package on Tuesday, the US Senate moved on to the next order of business: an even bigger budget bill with an estimated price tag of $3.5tn.
But there was something other than dollars that differentiated the two pieces of legislation. While the infrastructure package was hailed by President Joe Biden as a model of bipartisanship — 19 Republicans in the Senate voted for it — on the budget, Democrats plan to go it alone.
That “two track” strategy may allow the Senate to push through both the infrastructure bill and a budget resolution before recessing for the summer next week. But it also means they will have a bumpy road to become law.
Progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives, which has yet to vote on either package, have linked the two, insisting they will not back the bipartisan infrastructure package without the much bigger budget resolution, which includes a range of spending programmes backed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her left-leaning allies. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the Democratic-controlled House, has agreed not to take up the infrastructure bill until the Senate passes the budget.
But more centrist House Democrats have raised concerns about the scale of the budget bill, raising the prospect of internecine warfare once the two pieces of legislation reach the lower chamber in the autumn — and risking passage of both, given the narrow eight-vote majority Democrats enjoy in the House.
For his part, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said he believed the strategy was working. “The two-track strategy is proceeding full-steam ahead,” he said on Tuesday. “The Senate is on track to finish both tracks — and deliver an outstanding result for the American people.”
But Biden appeared far more circumspect, telling reporters that more difficult congressional negotiations lay ahead. “Let’s be clear,” he said after Tuesday’s Senate vote. “The work is far from done.”
Biden’s assurances did little to assuage Republicans, who attacked Democrats for ploughing ahead with a partisan process mere minutes after celebrating a bipartisan victory.
“Today Americans are able to witness the best and the worst here in the United States Senate,” said Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who frequently crosses the political aisle.
“The best: the Senate just passed, on a strong bipartisan basis, a historic infrastructure package,” she said. “The worst: the Senate immediately turned to a wholly partisan bill, a budget resolution which proposes over $3.5tn in new spending which will result in tax hikes on Americans.”
Even some centrist Democrats have questioned the quick shift. Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona Democrat who brokered the infrastructure deal, has said she does not support a $3.5tn budget price tag, and Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, said at the weekend that he “can’t really guarantee” whether the budget bill will ultimately make its way through the Senate.
But Biden on Tuesday described himself as a “congenital optimist”, telling reporters of the budget plan: “I think we will get enough Democrats to vote for it, and I think that the House will eventually put two bills on my desk.”
The two separate approaches are a byproduct of a quirk in Senate rules. Normally, legislation cannot move through the chamber without a supermajority of 60 votes, which is needed to cut off debate on a bill. But a process called reconciliation, aimed at getting budget bills through the Senate more quickly, only needs a simple majority, which Democrats can muster with a tiebreaking vice-presidential vote by Kamala Harris in the 50-50 upper house.
The budget resolution provides the blueprint of a budget that would spend trillions of dollars on a wide range of Biden priorities, including expanding universal schooling to three and four-year-olds; implementing clean energy tax credits; and expanding Medicare, the public health insurance system for older Americans, to provide dental, vision and hearing benefits. The spending would be offset, in part, by higher taxes on US corporations and wealthy Americans.
Business interests are concerned that Pelosi’s insistence on considering both bills together could doom the bipartisan deal on infrastructure spending that they have backed for years. The Business Roundtable and other pro-business lobbying groups suggested the House — whose members are currently on summer recess — return early to consider the infrastructure bill.
But Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, said that while the House would come back from recess several weeks sooner than planned, on August 23, it would first consider the Senate’s budget resolution.
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