WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — When President Joe Biden first announced the framework he’d reached with a bipartisan group of senators for a big infrastructure bill, he said it meant more than building roads and bridges.
Agreement, he said two months ago, would send a signal “to ourselves and to the world that American democracy can deliver.”
The senators who led the legislation to passage Tuesday agreed.
“We all knew that, quite honestly, that the world was watching,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
Approved on an overwhelming 69-30 vote, the nearly $1 trillion package would boost federal spending for major improvements of roads, bridges, internet access and other public works in communities from coast to coast. The bill goes next to the House.
While the deal is done in the Senate, it could still face significant issues in the house depending on how Senators commit to voting for Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget plan.
Manchin, a moderate who often acts as a bridge between his party and the Republicans, said in a statement that he was worried about potentially “grave consequences” for the nation’s debt as well as the country’s ability to respond to other potential crises.
More progressive Democrats, like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have threatened to not vote for the $1 trillion infrastructure plan if the spending plan is also not approved.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said her chamber will not vote on the infrastructure bill or the larger 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.
What should have been routine, a task Biden recalled as “probably the least difficult thing to do” when he was a senator, became an exercise in showing how damaged the legislative process has become in partisan Washington and how a president and core group of senators were determined to try to fix it.
Powering past skeptics, the five Democratic and five Republican senators who negotiated the deal were interested in Biden’s call to “build back better” after so many failed attempts at an infrastructure overhaul. But they also wanted to build back the confidence of Americans and the world that the U.S. government could tackle big problems.
“We really realized that this was going to be important for the country and I think it’s important for the institution,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said recently after a long day at the Capitol. “I’m really worried that everybody believes that we’re as dysfunctional as we appear to be, and so to prove otherwise, it’s kind of important.”
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said the issues of division facing the country in the early days of the Biden presidency, along with the history of failed efforts to invest in infrastructure, were on her mind as she joined the effort.
“It was a major motivation for me,” Collins said, “to demonstrate to the American people that we could overcome the hyper-partisanship in Washington on a very important issue that administrations of both parties have been calling for, for the past 20 years.”
Biden had been in talks with another bipartisan coalition led by Manchin and fellow West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, but once that effort collapsed, he reached out to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Democratic senator from Arizona.
A newer lawmaker, better known for her purple pandemic wig and chatting on the GOP side of the Senate aisle, Sinema made no secret of her reluctance to embrace Biden’s big infrastructure plan, which initially topped $4 trillion.
She had already been working behind the scenes with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and others in what another member of the group, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, described as a “backburner” coalition. They became the group of 10.
The White House sprang into action, eventually engaging in hundreds of meetings and phone calls with lawmakers of both parties in the House and Senate. The administration coordinated visits by members of the president’s “Jobs Cabinet,” and counselor Steve Ricchetti became a fixture on Capitol Hill.
“If there was a special sauce it was relationships,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview.
The president was highly engaged, briefed multiple times a day about the talks and often directing the strategy. He worked the phones.
Biden “was able to establish a tone,“ Buttigieg said.
The whole deal almost collapsed the June day it was first announced when Biden suggested at a news conference he would not sign it into law without also having his broader $3.5 trillion package alongside it, infuriating the Republicans who staunchly oppose that bill.
Collins was waiting at the airport for a flight back home to Maine when she read the headline and immediately called Biden’s top staff for an explanation.
Tester, sitting on his tractor at home in Montana, was dumbfounded.
Biden sent a lengthy statement two days later assuring the group that he would fight for both bills and putting negotiations back on track.
After Tuesday’s overwhelming vote in the Senate, the president called each of the 10 senators personally, reaching Sinema in the Senate cloakroom.
“They sent me a note. It said, ‘Biden on three for you.’ I literally said, ‘I don’t know what that means,’” Sinema told The Associated Press.
“He said congratulations and we spent some time talking about how important this victory is, not just for the work we’re doing on infrastructure but also to demonstrate that bipartisanship is still alive and our Congress can function,” she said.
“And then we talked about continuing to work together to get this bill across the finish line and onto his desk.”