Senate Democrats voted in the early morning hours Wednesday to approve a sweeping $3.5 trillion budget framework that includes a number of social programs – referred to as "human" infrastructure – that can pass without Republican support.
The 50-49 vote – which came after hours of debate and a marathon of considering amendments known as a "vote-a-rama" – hands President Joe Biden another key win in advancing his economic agenda, just hours after the Senate passed a $1 trillion "hard" infrastructure bill with sweeping bipartisan support.
What's the difference between the two measures? The $1 trillion bipartisan bill includes $550 billion in new spending and focuses on things like roads, bridges, airports, clean water and electric vehicles, and passed the Senate with 19 Republicans joining all 50 Senate Democrats.
The $3.5 trillion budget measure contains funding for a number of President Biden’s domestic priorities, including climate, immigration, social programs and health care. The budget bill does not need Republican support to pass using the budget reconciliation process.
"At the core of what we want to do is this: We want to cut taxes for American families," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday after the bipartisan infrastructure billl vote. "We want to create millions of jobs while tackling the climate crisis. And we want to pay for it by making corporation and the wealthy finally pay their fair share."
The budget measure includes funding for:
- Education: Universal pre-Kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds and and two years of free community college
- Social programs: Federal paid family and medical leave benefit and an extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit
- Health care: An expansion of Medicare to include dental, hearing and vision benefits and extending the pandemic expansion of the Affordable Care Act
- Climate: Establishing the first ever Civilian Climate Corps and providing clean energy, manufacturing and transportation tax incentives and grants
- Immigration: The Judiciary Committee was directed to outline a plan for “lawful permanent status for qualified immigrants,” which is likely to include Dreamers — people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, who are covered by the DACA program — but also potentially farmworkers, essential workers and immigrants living in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status
The plan also aims to fund public and sustainable housing, additional infrastructure projects, manufacturing and more. The package would be funded by higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
The House is expected to consider both measures when it returns from recess. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to consider both bills at the same time, setting up a particularly tricky tightrope for the California Democrat to walk.
On one hand, progressives are adamant that both bills be considered simultaneously.
“It’s not a bipartisan infrastructure bill OR a bold jobs and families package. It’s BOTH,” wrote Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Cali.), the Progressive Caucus Chair, wrote on Twitter. “If the bipartisan bill isn’t passed with a reconciliation package that has our popular priorities, we’re not voting for it.”
On the other, centrist House Democrats urged Pelosi in a letter to consider the bipartisan infrastructure measure quickly.
As soon as the Senate completes its work, we must bring this bipartisan infrastructure bill to the House floor for a standalone vote,” the group of moderates, which includes Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., Jared Golden, D-Maine, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., wrote. “This once-in-a-century investment deserves its own consideration, without regard to other legislation.”
President Biden "remains committed to passing each of these pieces of legislation on dual tracks that he is going to work in lockstep with Speaker Pelosi," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.
"The House will continue to work with the Senate to ensure that our priorities For The People are included in the final infrastructure and reconciliation packages, in a way that is resilient and will Build Back Better," Pelosi pledged in a statement Tuesday.
House Leaders said Tuesday that the chamber will return from Summer recess in two weeks to consider the measure.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., once a progressive voice in Congress’ wilderness and now a national figure wielding legislative clout, said the measure would help children, families, the elderly and working people — and more.
“It will also, I hope, restore the faith of the American people in the belief that we can have a government that works for all of us, and not just the few,” he said.
Republicans argued that Democrats’ proposals would waste money, raise economy-wounding taxes, fuel inflation and codify far-left dictates that would harm Americans. They were happy to use Sanders, a self-avowed democratic socialist, to try tarring all Democrats backing the measure.
If Biden and Senate Democrats want to “outsource domestic policy to Chairman Sanders” with a “historically reckless taxing and spending spree,” Republicans lack the votes to stop them, conceded Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “But we will debate. We will vote.”
In a budget ritual, senators plunged into a “vote-a-rama,” a nonstop parade of messaging amendments that often becomes a painful all-night ordeal. This time, the Senate held more than 40 roll calls by the time it approved the measure at around 4 a.m. EDT, more than 14 hours after the procedural wretchedness began.
With the budget resolution largely advisory, the goal of most amendments was not to win but to force the other party’s vulnerable senators to cast troublesome votes that can be used against them in next year’s elections for congressional control.
Republicans crowed after Democrats opposed GOP amendments calling for the full-time reopening of pandemic-shuttered schools and boosting the Pentagon’s budget and retaining limits on federal income tax deductions for state and local levies. They were also happy when Democrats showed support for Biden’s now suspended ban on oil and gas leasing on federal lands, which Republicans said would prompt gasoline price increases.
One amendment may have boomeranged after the Senate voted 99-0 for a proposal by freshman Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., to curb federal funds for any municipalities that defund the police. That idea has been rejected by all but the most progressive Democrats, but Republicans have persistently accused them anyway of backing it.
In an animated, sardonic rejoinder, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., called Tuberville’s amendment “a gift” that would let Democrats “put to bed this scurrilous accusation that somebody in this great esteemed body would want to defund the police.” He said he wanted to “walk over there and hug my colleague.”
Republicans claimed two narrow victories with potential implications for future votes, with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the chamber’s more conservative Democrats, joining them on both nonbinding amendments.
One indicated support for health care providers who refuse to participate in abortions. The other voiced opposition to teaching critical race theory, which considers racism endemic to American institutions. There’s scant evidence that it’s part of public school curriculums.
The budget blueprint envisions creating new programs including tuition-free pre-kindergarten and community college, paid family leave and a Civilian Climate Corps whose workers would tackle environmental projects. Millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally would have a new chance for citizenship, and there would be financial incentives for states to adopt more labor-friendly laws.
Medicare would add dental, hearing and vision benefits, and tax credits and grants would prod utilities and industries to embrace clean energy. Child tax credits beefed up for the pandemic would be extended, along with federal subsidies for health insurance.
Besides higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, Democrats envision savings by letting the government negotiate prices for pharmaceuticals it buys, slapping taxes on imported carbon fuels and strengthening IRS tax collections. Democrats have said their policies will be fully paid for, but they’ll make no final decisions until this fall’s follow-up bill.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.