Senate bid to speed infrastructure runs into unexpected virus hurdle

GRAHAM: South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, attends a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, 2018. Leah Millis/Reuters

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's plan to pass a $550 billion infrastructure bill this week hit a potential obstacle from a surprising source when a key Republican announced he tested positive for COVID-19 and would quarantine for 10 days.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of 10 Republicans who helped negotiate the infrastructure package and provided crucial votes to move it forward in the Senate, said he was tested on Monday after experiencing flu-like symptoms on Saturday. He said he was vaccinated.

But the positive test for Graham highlights the surge in COVID-19 cases across the U.S. brought on by the fast-spreading Delta variant and the risks for lawmakers.

Graham went to an event over the weekend hosted by Sen. Joe Manchin on his houseboat and attended by other senators, according to spokesman Kevin Bishop.

Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, told reporters he has tested negative for an infection. At least four other senators have confirmed they were at a gathering with Graham, but none so far has tested positive. Centers for Disease Control guidance doesn't require quarantine for vaccinated people who've been exposed unless they have symptoms.

The Senate doesn't allow proxy voting like the House, so the quarantine would mean Graham would miss votes on the legislation, which Schumer wants passed before the end of the week. Graham's vote alone wouldn't necessarily hold up the bill. There were 67 votes last week to advance it, including 17 Republicans. Sixty votes will be needed finish the legislation.

But the potential for more positive tests among senators in the narrowly divided chamber could upset Schumer's schedule, which already was delayed by drawn out bargaining over the infrastructure bill. At least two House members have tested positive for COVID-19, as have several congressional staff members.

Asked whether Graham's exposure would affect plan for a budget resolution vote after the infrastructure bill, Schumer said, "I hope not."

Some Republicans had already been casting doubt about finishing work this week. Opponents of the bill, such as Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, want the vote delayed until after the Senate's August recess.

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell made clear Republicans in the 50-50 chamber won't be rushed and want numerous chances to offer amendments.

"Just as infrastructure itself is not a luxury but a necessity, the same goes for the Senate having a robust and bipartisan amendment process on legislation of this magnitude," McConnell said Monday on the Senate floor.

Further complicating the timetable, many senators will leave Washington to attend the Friday funeral of former GOP Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming. The retired senator died last week following a bicycle accident.

The bipartisan package would provide the biggest infusion of federal spending on public works in decades and mark a major milestone for President Joe Biden's economic agenda.

The 2,702-page bill, finished Sunday night after weeks of negotiations, would ultimately touch Americans across the country, with broad subsidies for roads they drive on, water they drink and the electrical grid powering their homes and businesses. The bill is packed with benefits for numerous industries and regions.

"Every senator can look at bridges and roads and need for more broadband, waterways in their states, seaports airports, and see the benefits, the very concrete benefits, no pun intended, of this legislation," Maine Sen. Susan Collins, one of the GOP negotiators, said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" program.

It includes about $110 billion in new spending for roads and bridges, $73 billion of power grid upgrades, $66 billion for rail and Amtrak, and $65 billion for broadband expansion. It also provides $55 billion for clean drinking water and $39 billion for transit.

One provision that faced intensive lobbying provides for low-cost internet access plans as part of the massive broadband package. But in a nod to the telecom industry it includes a clause making clear that the bill doesn't authorize the government to set prices.

There are also numerous energy provisions subsidizing everything from nuclear power plants to carbon capture and storage, electric buses, charging stations and battery recycling, also heavily lobbied by industry groups.

But Biden's broader climate agenda, such as a clean energy standard and electric vehicle tax credits, isn't in the bill. Those proposals still need the backing of West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and every other Democrat as part of a follow-on package with the rest of Biden's economic agenda totaling as much as $3.5 trillion over a decade.

The bill will be paid for largely by the equivalent of raiding the federal budget couch cushions for cash. Democrats were unwilling to cut much spending elsewhere, while Republicans early on declared a "red line" against Biden's plans to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Biden in turn nixed early talk of raising the gas tax or imposing a tax on electric vehicles.

Offsets include such items as selling off billions of dollars worth of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve starting in 2028, tapping assorted unspent COVID-19 relief accounts, extending some budget cuts from 2030 to 2031 and delaying a never-implemented prescription drug rebate rule under Medicare.

One item that has drawn fierce opposition in recent days would extend some tax reporting rules to cryptocurrency brokers – a move the Joint Committee on Taxation says would raise $28 billion, but the specifics of which drew a rebuke Sunday from Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden. A tax on chemical polluters would also raise an additional $14.5 billion.

In total, the tax-related measures, including the cryptocurrency regulations, would raise $51.1 billion over a decade, according to an estimate from the Joint Committee on Taxation Monday, meaning less than 10% of the total revenue to pay for the roughly $550 billion in new spending comes from tax increases. The remaining revenue offsets will be tabulated by the Congressional Budget Office, which has yet to release its projections.

Democrats are seeking consent from Republicans to hold three votes Monday on bipartisan amendments to the deal. They are considered noncontroversial and are cosponsored by Republican Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds of South Dakota as well as Jerry Moran of Kansas and would need 60 votes to pass.

Senators of both parties say they expect the legislation ultimately will pass without major changes.

Schumer said after the infrastructure bill passes the Senate would immediately turn to a budget resolution setting up a procedure known as reconciliation, which will allow Democrats to pass the bulk of Biden's agenda without facing a filibuster by Republicans. Doing so could keep the Senate at work into next week, delaying the onset of an August recess scheduled to begin on Monday, August 9.

Schumer has committed to moving both the infrastructure bill and the budget resolution in tandem to keep the Democrats' progressive and moderate wings in the House and Senate unified.The budget framework, which will enable a later bill including spending on child care, education and paid leave as well as tax increases for the wealthy and corporations, would require every Democratic vote in the Senate, where the parties have a 50-50 split and a tie-breaker in Vice President Kamala Harris. In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi can spare the loss of only three Democratic votes.However, Manchin and Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have expressed reservations about the $3.5 trillion price tag currently being discussed, while progressives including New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez warn that she and her allies have enough votes to sink the infrastructure plan if their priorities aren't addressed in the budget package.

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