Republicans in the US Senate blocked Joe Biden’s $1tn bipartisan infrastructure package as it faced its first vote in the upper chamber of Congress, in a setback for the president and his fellow Democrats.
The defeat of the plan in a procedural vote to advance the legislation on Wednesday does not mean that its chances are doomed, since centrist lawmakers from both parties have vowed to keep negotiating over the coming days.
However, it highlights the difficulty Biden faces in his quest to secure congressional approval for an ambitious multitrillion-dollar economic agenda. It also increases the likelihood that the president will have to enact his ambitious tax-and-spending plans solely with Democratic support.
On Wednesday Biden travelled to Cincinnati, Ohio, to tout his economic plans and hold a televised town hall meeting with local residents. Although US growth and job creation has jumped since he took office in January, the economic outlook has been clouded by the resurgence of the coronavirus due to the rapid spread of the contagious Delta variant, as well as an unnerving jump in inflation.
Since Biden announced an agreement with moderate senators from both parties last month on a $1tn infrastructure plan, lawmakers have been wrangling over the text.
In an effort to nudge them towards a final deal and force their hand, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, called for a procedural vote on Wednesday afternoon to advance the legislation, which would require the approval of 60 out of 100 senators in the upper chamber of Congress.
“This vote is not a deadline to have every final detail worked out, it is not an attempt to jam anyone,” Schumer said ahead of the vote.
In the end, however, all Democratic senators favoured moving ahead with the bill and all Republicans opposed it, meaning it failed to clear the hurdle required for additional debate and a vote. Because Schumer had to switch his vote to a no in order to keep the legislation alive, the final tally was 49 votes in favour and 51 against the motion.
Republicans said they voted against the plan because they needed more time to fine-tune the language, particularly on how to pay for the extra spending.
“This stunt is set to fail,” Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said ahead of the vote, adding that Schumer could “move to reconsider whenever a bipartisan product actually exists”.
Republicans have already successfully stripped out language in the bill that would have increased enforcement of existing tax laws by the Internal Revenue Service with more aggressive audits. Other sticking points remain, including funding for mass transit, which conservative lawmakers have resisted.
With talks on a bipartisan bill dragging on, progressive Democrats argue that Biden should turn his focus towards passing the rest of his $4tn agenda solely with the backing of his own party using a legislative manoeuvre known as “reconciliation”. This allows budgetary measures to be approved with a simple majority in the upper chamber of Congress.
“Our roads and bridges are literally crumbling . . . we can’t wait around for the GOP on this because all they want to do is obstruct. It’s time to go big and bold,” Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Washington state, said on Twitter on Wednesday.
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