By Yvonne Wingett Sanchez
The Senate passed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package co-negotiated by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, setting the stage to enact a massive infusion of federal spending to improve the country’s public works.
The legislation passed the evenly divided Senate 69 to 30, with Vice President Kamala Harris presiding and announcing the final vote. It now moves to the House of Representatives, although it is unclear when the House might act on it.
The legislation, which includes $550 billion in new spending, would make significant improvements to the nation’s roads, bridges, transit, water systems, power grids, broadband access, airports, electric grids, ports of entry and other public infrastructure.
At the same time, it would increase spending in an effort to build out infrastructure needed for a low-carbon economy — such as a network of electric vehicle charging stations and expanding clean transit options — to help reduce emissions and improve the country’s water and air quality.
Passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a major coup for Sinema, an Arizona Democrat whose quest for bipartisanship in an often-gridlocked Washington has drawn intense condemnation from progressives who have pilloried her for seeking to work with Republicans instead of helping to quickly pass President Joe Biden’s priorities in Congress.
Sinema co-brokered the infrastructure deal with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Senators from both sides of the aisle have credited Sinema for keeping the talks going despite a difficult political environment.
Biden called to congratulate Sinema after the bill’s passage, taking his call in a Senate phone booth. She was smiling.
In an interview with The Arizona Republic a short time later, Sinema said the legislation will touch nearly every facet of the lives of Arizonans. Every airport small and big throughout the state, for example, would get new funding.
Underserved and low-income families should see more affordable and faster internet. The federal government will fully pay for enacted Indian water rights settlements that have for years been waiting on Congress for the funding to complete related tribal water infrastructure projects. And sanitation will be improved for an estimated 15,000 Navajo homes and thousands of other homes in tribal communities across Arizona.
“All of those things will have real-dollar impacts in Arizona … and make a real difference in people’s lives,” she said. “What I think today is is the reflection of the United States Senate working the way that it is intended to work, and what I’ve been doing, as you know, quietly since the early spring, is just putting my head down, working together with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, first in a very small group, and then widening the circle, widening the circle, earning support.”
The bipartisan group of 10 senators who began working on the framework for the deal had a pre-victory dinner on Monday night in anticipation they wouldn’t have time after Tuesday’s vote, she said. Over a meal and wine, the senators began brainstorming additional bipartisan projects the group intends on working on together.
“I’m not ready to talk about most of those yet because they’re still in their nascent stages,” she said. “Some of those won’t be a surprise to you.”
Sinema and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, had worked out a deal to increase the federal minimum wage. Their proposal won the support of a group of 20 bipartisan senators but Sinema and Romney pivoted to infrastructure negotiations full time when they saw an opening for compromise.
“So we discussed that issue and another, I would say probably another seven or eight issues, that we began discussing last night,” she said. “And I expect to see the group move forward with bipartisan action in the coming months.”
Sinema talked to colleagues on the floor of the Senate during the vote. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., also was part of the bipartisan working group of 22 senators that negotiated the bill. His focus, in part, centered on the bill’s investments to improve power grids, Western water systems, ports of entry and wildfire prevention.
“Arizonans in every corner of our state are going to benefit from these investments, from expanded high-speed internet access, to improved roads and transit options, to better security and shorter wait times at our ports of entry,” Kelly said in a written statement.
“As water levels fall in Lakes Mead and Powell and fires burn across our state and the West, I worked to include priorities that will make our state more resilient to drought and wildfires,” Kelly’s statement said. “This legislation is the product of working together, Republicans and Democrats, to find common ground and work out our differences, and the result is going to be historic investments that create high-paying jobs and bring our economy into the future.”
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office determined the legislation would not pay for itself, as senators have said. Instead, analysts determined it would increase federal budget deficits by $256 billion over a decade. The White House projects the bill could create about 2 million jobs each year in the coming decade.
Nineteen Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., voted for the bill. Support from the GOP came in the face of criticism by former President Donald Trump, who chastised Republicans for cooperating with Democrats and threatened “lots of primaries” against them.
The Senate immediately voted 50-49 along party lines to begin debate on a separate “human infrastructure” effort using the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation process. Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, was absent.
That process is filibuster-proof and requires a simple majority to pass. It could help pave the way for Democrats to begin shaping the centerpiece of Biden’s presidential agenda that includes expanding Medicare and caregiving for the disabled and elderly, funding universal pre-kindergarten and paying for climate change initiatives.
Sinema previously has said she would vote to advance the process of debating the legislation. She has supported many of the goals laid out in the human infrastructure framework but opposes the price tag. With Democrats controlling the Senate by just one vote, Sinema’s opposition to the price forces the party to shape the spending amount more to her liking.
Kelly has said he wants to advance the vehicle to get the process started on the budget reconciliation package. He has not committed to supporting the $3.5 trillion price tag.