Top Senate Dem sets infrastructure vote, pressures lawmakers

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pressured lawmakers Thursday to reach agreement by next week on a pair of massive domestic spending measures, signaling Democrats’ desire to push ahead aggressively on President Joe Biden’s multi-trillion dollar agenda.

Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was scheduling a procedural vote for next Wednesday to begin debate on a still-evolving bipartisan infrastructure bill. Senators from both parties, bargaining for weeks, have struggled to reach final agreement on a $1 trillion package of highway, water systems and other public works projects.

Schumer said he also wanted Democratic senators to reach agreement among themselves by then on specific details of a separate 10-year budget blueprint that envisions $3.5 trillion in spending for climate change, education, an expansion of Medicare and more.

“The time has come to make progress. And we will. We must,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

The majority leader’s plans were an attempt to push lawmakers to work out differences so Democrats can advance their plans to fortify the economy for the long term and help lower-earning and middle-class families while imposing higher taxes on wealthy people and large corporations.

It will take 60 votes to start debating the infrastructure measure because Republicans are expected to use a filibuster — procedural delays — to try killing it.

That means the chamber’s 50 Democrats will need support from at least 10 Republicans. Democratic leaders hope a bipartisan deal on the widely popular road and other projects would attract enough Republicans to succeed. Bargainers have faced major hang-ups over which revenues they would raise to finance the infrastructure legislation.

Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., want Congress to approve a $3.5 trillion budget resolution before lawmakers begin a summer recess next month. Approval of that measure is crucial for Democrats because it would protect a massive subsequent bill actually providing that money for specific programs — probably this fall — from more GOP filibusters, meaning Democrats could pass it on their own.

The infrastructure bill and budget resolution would also need to pass the House, which Democrats control narrowly.

On Wednesday, Biden made a quick foray to the Capitol hunting support for his ambitious agenda, a potential landmark achievement that will require near-unanimous backing from fractious Democrats.

The president spent just under an hour at a closed-door lunch with Democratic senators in the building where he served for 36 years as a Delaware senator and where his party controls the House and Senate, though just barely.

“It is great to be with my colleagues, and I think we are going to get a lot done,” Biden told reporters after his first working meeting at the Capitol with lawmakers since becoming president.

Democrats’ accord on their overall $3.5 trillion figure was a major step for a party whose rival moderate and progressive factions have competing visions of how costly and bold the final package should be. But it’s merely an initial move that leaves the toughest decisions for later. They must translate their plan into legislation with specific spending and revenue figures, then line up the needed votes to enact it, a process likely to grind right through autumn.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, top Republican on the Budget Committee, belittled the emerging plan as a wasteful liberal wish list that would fuel inflation and boost taxes.

“Count me in for real infrastructure. Count me out for a tax and spend plan from Hell,” he said in a statement.

The overall spending that Democrats are seeking is a bit less than the roughly $4.5 trillion for new spending that Biden wants for infrastructure, family services, climate change and other programs. To accommodate their lower figure, lawmakers will have to curtail or eliminate some of his proposals.

In an unsurprising harbinger of potential problems, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, perhaps his chamber’s most conservative Democrat, signaled he would oppose proposals to curb fossil fuels, long a lifeblood for his state’s economy. His demands to trim other spending forced Democrats to drop a longtime progressive goal, a minimum wage increase, from pandemic relief legislation early this year.

Key backing for the overall plan has come from Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a self-proclaimed democratic socialist and a leader of the Democrats’ progressive wing. He’s repeatedly called the agreement historic and said Wednesday that while he’d like more spending — he earlier sought $6 trillion — the reality is that all 50 Democratic senators are needed to prevail.

A senior Democratic aide said the budget will envision extensions of tax credits for children, child care and some low-income people, money for environmentally friendly energy technologies and a federal standard aimed at encouraging a shift to clean energy. The plan would fund pre-kindergarten for toddlers, aid for college students, paid family leave, food and housing programs and a pathway to citizenship for potentially several million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe Democrats’ plans.

Also included is a top progressive priority — an expansion of Medicare, the health insurance program for older Americans, to include vision, dental and hearing coverage. Sanders suggested there also might be an effort to lower that program’s eligibility age to 60.

That would be expensive, but the senior aide said Democrats are also looking at savings from letting the government negotiate prescription drug costs. The aide said there would also be language barring tax boosts on people earning under $400,000 annually, on small businesses and on family farms.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a leading moderate, said the entire measure would be paid for with new revenue. Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in an interview that he’s working on proposals to “ensure that the superwealthy and mega-corporations pay their fair share” of taxes and for extra funding for the IRS to crack down on tax scofflaws.

Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Mary Clare Jalonick and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.