Senate Republicans block U.S. debt-limit hike again

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Senate Republicans blocked an attempt by President Joe Biden’s fellow Democrats on Tuesday to head off a potentially crippling U.S. credit default, raising questions about whether partisan tensions in Congress will threaten the nation’s economy.

With federal government funding due to expire on Thursday and borrowing authority set to run out on Oct. 18, Democrats who narrowly control both chambers of Congress are working to head off twin fiscal disasters while simultaneously trying to advance Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda.

So far, Republicans have prevented them from doing so.

Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday blocked a vote that would have suspended the nation’s $28.4 trillion debt limit. Senate Republicans a day earlier defeated legislation that would have raised the debt limit and extended government funding.

Lawmakers now have just three days to avert a possible government shutdown by midnight Thursday, the end of the current fiscal year. Failure to do so could result in furloughs for hundreds of thousands of federal workers in the middle of a public health crisis.

Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate said they would soon advance spending bills to head off a shutdown.

Fiscal brinkmanship has become a regular feature of U.S. politics thanks to ongoing partisan polarization.

The most recent government shutdown, occurring during the presidency of Biden’s Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, lasted 35 days before ending in January 2019.

A government shutdown or a default would be a setback for the Democrats, who ahead of next year’s congressional elections have portrayed themselves as the party of responsible government after Trump’s chaotic presidency.

Democrats are also struggling to unite behind two pillars of Biden’s domestic policy agenda: a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion social spending package.


Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told lawmakers that the government would run out of options to service the debt by Oct. 18. Republicans have refused to cooperate to raise the debt limit, saying they do not want to help Democrats spend more money. Democrats point out that much of the nation’s debt was incurred under Trump.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer proposed holding a vote to raise the debt limit that could pass with just the support of the chamber’s 48 Democrats and the two independents allied with them as long as Republicans agreed to allow the vote to occur.

“If Republicans really want to see the debt limit raised without providing a single vote, I’m prepared to hold that vote,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

But McConnell blocked the vote, saying Democrats should fold the debt-ceiling increase into a $3.5 trillion spending bill that would expand the nation’s social safety net. Democrats have already set up special rules that would allow that package to pass the Senate without Republican support.

Democrats are still negotiating the size and content of that package. It could take several weeks to clear Congress and reach Biden’s desk, dangerously close to the debt-limit deadline.

Schumer called that approach a “non starter.”

Democrats had originally planned to handle the social-spending bill, championed by the party’s left wing, in tandem with a $1.1 trillion infrastructure package that has drawn bipartisan support. But they have scheduled a House vote on the infrastructure bill on Thursday even though the social-spending bill is still being negotiated.

Lawmakers on the party’s left insisted that Congress must first pass the social spending bill.

“We articulated this position more than three months ago, and today it is still unchanged,” Representative Pramila Jayapal, leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, David Morgan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Andy Sullivan, Will Dunham and Jonathan Oatis)

Senators reach deal on major points of U.S. infrastructure bill

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Senate negotiators have reached agreement on the major components of a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, clearing the way for a procedural vote on Wednesday to move toward formal debate and passage, lawmakers said.

The agreement, which follows months of talks between Senate Democrats and Republicans, is also backed by President Joe Biden and expected to gain strong support from lawmakers on both sides of the party aisle.

Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Senator Rob Portman, the two lead Senate negotiators, announced the agreement to reporters in the Capitol. Details on transit and broadband were still being finalized but lawmakers said legislative text would be completed soon.

“We do expect to move forward this evening. We’re excited to have a deal,” Sinema said. “We’ve got most of the text done, so we’ll be releasing it and then we’ll update it as we get those last pieces finalized.”

Sinema described Biden as “very excited” about the package.

Addressing a concern over funding among Republican lawmakers including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Portman said the package is “more than paid for” and added: “We look forward to moving ahead and having a healthy debate.”

The procedural vote would simply limit debate on whether the Senate should begin considering a bipartisan infrastructure investment bill, thought to be in the range of $1.2 trillion.

The bipartisan bill, which failed a similar vote last week when major issues remained unresolved, is a key component of Biden’s larger domestic policy agenda. Democrats plan to address the remainder with a sweeping $3.5 trillion reconciliation package that Republicans have vowed to oppose.

The bill will propose $550 billion in new spending, a Republican source said, down from $579 billion in a framework the negotiators sketched out several weeks ago.

It scraps previous plans to spend $20 billion to create an infrastructure financing authority, sources in both parties said. It had been intended to attract investment through private-public partnerships, but Republicans opposed Democratic demands designed to lift worker wages by attaching requirements that contractors pay prevailing wages, typically higher levels secured by unions.

Four other Republican negotiators joined Portman, including Senator Lisa Murkowski, who said the agreement showed Republicans and Democrats in the sharply divided U.S. Congress “can come together over really hard stuff to negotiate in good faith to broker an agreement.”

The agreement includes $110 billion for roads, $65 billion to expand broadband access and $47 billion for environmental resiliency, the lawmakers said.

Earlier, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said a procedural vote on a bipartisan bill was possible as soon as Wednesday night.

“Senators continue to make good progress,” Democrat Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Before the announcement, Murkowski told reporters: “I think that there is a strong, solid number of folks on both sides of the aisle that want to get on to an infrastructure package.”

Democrats hope to pass this month or early next month whatever measure is agreed upon in the bipartisan negotiations.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Susan Cornwell, additional reporting by David Shepardson and Richard Cowan; editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis, Diane Craft and David Gregorio)

U.S. House approves $715 billion infrastructure bill

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives approved a $715 billion surface transportation and water infrastructure bill on Thursday in what Democrats see as an early step toward sweeping infrastructure legislation that Congress hopes to complete in September.

The bill, which includes provisions from President Joe Biden’s initial $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal, authorizes additional spending for roads, bridges, highway safety, electric vehicle charging stations, rail, transit, drinking and wastewater infrastructure.

It also funds programs that would provide money for major projects, including an $11.6 billion plan to connect New Jersey and New York’s Penn Station in midtown Manhattan via four modern transportation tubes beneath the Hudson River.

The 221-201 vote sends the legislation to the Democratic-led Senate. The legislation’s spending level was increased by amendments and earmarks, but House aides could not immediately say by how much.

The action marks the first time that the House has voted to pass legislation containing earmarks, since Democrats and Republicans reinstituted the practice of allowing lawmakers to add pet projects to spending bills earlier this year.

The bill designates more than 1,470 projects amounting to nearly $5.7 billion in spending, according to the U.S. House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. Nearly 1,070 projects worth just under $4 billion were sought by Democrats.

Republicans secured 403 projects valued at nearly $1.7 billion.

The legislation is necessary to reauthorize U.S. surface transportation programs by a Sept. 30 deadline.

House Democratic aides say the measure could also help a bipartisan working group in the U.S. Senate covert their $1.2 trillion infrastructure framework into legislative text. Biden has endorsed the bipartisan deal and the Democratic-led Senate hopes to pass legislation by the end of this month.

House Democrats are also working to produce a related landmark reconciliation bill that would address climate change, expand social programs and pay for new initiatives with tax hikes on U.S. corporations and the wealthy – objectives that Republicans reject.

House and Senate Democrats are aiming to pass a budget resolution with reconciliation instructions this month, and then give final congressional approval to bipartisan infrastructure legislation and the reconciliation bill in September. The initiatives could cost $6 trillion, all told.

Thursday’s House surface transportation bill contains $343 billion for roads, bridges and safety – including $4 billion for electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

The measure also calls for $109 billion for transit and $95 billion for rail, including tripling funding for the U.S. passenger railroad, Amtrak, to $32 billion, $117 billion for drinking water infrastructure and more than $51 billion for wastewater infrastructure.

It would authorize $4.1 billion for grants to buy electric transit buses, create a $500 million grant program to reduce traffic gridlock in large metropolitan areas and $1 billion to address the shortage of parking for commercial motor vehicles and allow for heavier electric vehicles on U.S. roads and mandate additional safety features in new school buses.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Biden ally in U.S. Senate says Republicans have until end of May for infrastructure deal

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans in Congress have until the end of May to negotiate provisions of an infrastructure bill before Democrats opt to move sweeping legislation on their own, one of U.S. President Joe Biden’s closest Senate allies predicted on Wednesday.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Biden’s home state of Delaware said several senior Senate Republicans had privately signaled they would support a package of up to $1 trillion that targets roads, bridges and other typical infrastructure areas and includes some tax increases to pay for legislation.

Biden has proposed a more sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure package, which invests in traditional projects but also seeks to change the course of the U.S. economy by addressing climate change and boosting human services such as elder care.

The president and his Democratic allies, who narrowly control both houses of Congress, have insisted that they want Republican support for the package but will not wait long before deciding whether to move forward on their own.

“I believe that President Biden is open to spending the next month negotiating what the possibility is,” Coons told Punchbowl News in an interview. He said he spoke to the president earlier this week.

If no clear deal exists by the May 31 Memorial Day holiday, Coons added, “I think Democrats just roll it up into a big package and move it.”

Biden is expected to meet with a bipartisan group of lawmakers on infrastructure next week, said White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Coons said talks with “several fairly seasoned senior Republicans” suggest bipartisan support for a narrower bill that could be funded partially by higher gasoline taxes and a new fee for electric vehicles to be dedicated to road infrastructure.

But the president’s larger plan faces determined opposition from Republicans including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who describes the Biden package as “a Trojan horse” for tax hikes and unnecessary spending.

“There’s broad bipartisan support for tackling the infrastructure issue. But it depends on what your definition is,” McConnell told a Wednesday news conference in his home state of Kentucky.

“Infrastructure is roads, is bridges. It’s broadband. But beyond that, they’ve thrown everything but the kitchen sink into it,” he said.

Republican opposition raises the odds Democrats will use a maneuver called reconciliation to pass a package with just their own votes. Democrats control half the 100 seats in the Senate with Kamala Harris, Biden’s vice president, the tie-breaking 51st vote.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller