U.S. Senate turns to $3.5 trillion bill, key to Biden’s agenda

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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris listens as President Joe Biden discusses the U.S. Senate’s passage of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, in the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 10, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed a massive infrastructure bill and immediately kicked off debate on a $3.5 trillion spending blueprint for President Joe Biden’s key priorities on climate change, universal preschool and affordable housing.

The bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill https://www.reuters.com/world/us/whats-us-senates-bipartisan-1-trillion-infrastructure-bill-2021-08-03, which the 100-member chamber passed in a 69-30 vote, could provide the nation’s biggest investment in decades in roads, bridges, airports and waterways.

U.S. stocks headed to fresh records on the news.

With a razor-thin majority in the Senate, Democrats pivoted quickly to a budget resolution containing spending instructions for the multi-trillion-dollar follow-up package https://www.reuters.com/world/us/paid-leave-clean-energy-preschool-democrats-35-trln-plan-2021-08-09. They plan to push the package through over the next few months, using a process called “budget reconciliation https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-senates-reconciliation-process-its-not-way-it-sounds-2021-08-10,” which bypasses the chamber’s normal rules requiring 60 votes to pass most legislation.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly said that her chamber will not take up either the infrastructure bill or the spending package until both are delivered, which will require the Democratic leadership to hold its narrow majorities in Congress together to get the legislation to Biden’s desk.

“Today we move this country in a very different direction” with a budget plan that will “ask the wealthiest people in our country to start paying their fair share of taxes,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders said on Tuesday as debate began.

Sanders, one of the Senate’s most liberal members, added, “The American people are sick and tired of growing income and wealth inequality in our country where two people now own more wealth than the bottom 40%.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the budget committee, railed against the spending plan, saying it would fuel inflation, lead to higher taxes and energy costs on working Americans and open the border to more illegal immigration.

“This is why we have elections,” Graham said, referring to next year’s contests that will determine control of Congress. “In 2022, this idea will be on the ballot, and my goal and my Republican colleagues’ is to fight like hell.”

The Senate on Tuesday began a “vote-a-rama,” a process that gives senators the opportunity to propose amendments to the budget resolution. Debate can run for days unless party leaders agree to a shorter period.

INFRASTRUCTURE WIN

Polls show that the drive to upgrade America’s infrastructure, hammered out over months by senators from both parties, is broadly popular with the public. The bill includes $550 billion in new spending, as well as $450 billion in previously approved infrastructure investment.

Biden praised the bill in remarks at the White House.

“We’re poised, once again, and I mean this in a literal sense, to make the same kind of historic investments that have so often made possible made it possible for America to build the future and allow us to out-compete the rest of the world,” Biden said.

Once the budget resolution is adopted, Democrats will begin crafting the reconciliation package for a vote on passage after they return from their summer break in September.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office last week said the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed on Tuesday would increase federal budget deficits by $256 billion over 10 years — an assessment rejected by negotiators who said the CBO was undercounting how much revenue it would generate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted for the infrastructure bill, signaled that Republicans would try to use the vote-a-rama to erode support from moderate Democrats for what he called a “radical” larger spending plan that he said would create a permanent welfare state and usher in the largest peacetime tax hike in U.S. history.

“Every single senator will be going on record over and over and over,” McConnell added. “We will debate, and we will vote, and we will stand up, and we will be counted, and the people of this country will know exactly which senators fought for them.”

The budget plan would provide various Senate committees with top-line spending levels for a wide range of federal initiatives, including helping the elderly get home healthcare and more families afford early childhood education.

It also would provide tuition-free community college and foster major investments in programs to significantly reduce carbon emissions blamed for climate change.

Later, Senate committees would have to fill in the details for scores of federal programs.

When Congress returns in September, it will not only debate the large investment measures but have to fund government activities for the fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1, increase Washington’s borrowing authority and possibly try to pass a voting reform bill.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and David Morgan, additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Scott Malone, Alistair Bell and Sonya Hepinstall)

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