GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal

WASHINGTON (thehill): The bipartisan infrastructure bill unveiled Sunday night is riding a wave of momentum, but its supporters will soon face the tough job of selling it to skeptical Republican senators who are asking how much it will add to the federal deficit.

Seventeen Republican senators voted last week to begin the debate on the legislation — more than enough to push the compromise package across the finish line — but there’s no guarantee they will also vote in favor of the bill for final passage.

The 50-member Democratic caucus is expected to vote for the infrastructure deal, which if signed into law would mark a huge political win for President Biden, who campaigned on restoring bipartisanship to Washington.

Whether the legislation passes the Senate rests largely on the internal political dynamics of the Senate GOP conference.

GOP leaders say a lot will depend on the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) assessment of the legislation.

Right now, Republican leadership predicts the bill’s pay-for provisions will cover a little more than half the cost of the overall bill when CBO’s cautious standards for assessing legislation are applied.

“How much of it really, truly is offset with credible pay-fors is I think going to be a pretty big factor for a good number of our members who might be inclined to vote for something but don’t want to add it to the deficit,” said Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), adding he had the “same questions.”

“I want to see an updated list of the pay-fors and then get as much information from CBO and the [Joint Committee on Taxation] about that as possible,” he added. “For me, making sure that we’re not just putting more on the deficit and the debt is a real issue.”

Thune estimated that “a little more than half” of the proposed pay-fors are “scoreable” in the eyes of the budget office. In other words, many of the offsets in the legislation won’t be judged as reducing the overall estimated cost.

The Joint Committee on Taxation, which scores revenue-raising measures, issued a report Monday saying the bipartisan infrastructure deal would raise only $51 billion in new tax revenues over the next 10 years, a fraction of the $550 billion in proposed new spending.

Thune and other Republicans on Monday warned Democrats not to rush the legislation and instead allow ample time to offer and debate amendments.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who may be in the running to become the next leader of the Senate GOP conference, said he’s “eager to see a score from the Congressional Budget Office to provide a better understanding of the true cost of this legislation.”

He noted on the Senate floor that even the authors of the compromise bill concede the budget office won’t judge the proposed pay-fors as fully covering the cost of new spending.

“Even the proponents who negotiated this deal concede that at last before the $118 billion transfer from the general revenue fund … that then only about half of it was paid for,” Cornyn said.

One key swing vote is Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), one of the 22 senators who endorsed bipartisan infrastructure negotiations early on, but later declined to sign a letter to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) promising to vote for a motion to proceed to floor debate, saying he first wanted to know the details of the bill.

Moran said the budget projection for the bipartisan deal will be a big factor in his decision-making.

“From the very beginning I’ve indicated that I want to see without a lot of smoke and mirrors that there is significant payment [for new spending.] I recognize how this place works, I don’t expect it to be perfect but I am still interested in the outcome of that score, which none of us have seen,” he said.

Proponents of the bill say that while the official CBO score may not completely offset the cost of the legislation, they have letters and less-official estimates that will testify to the potential for various pay-fors to significantly reduce the real-world impact on the deficit.

That seems to carry weight with other Republican senators who are viewed as swing votes.

“My sense is this is going to deliver the sort of core infrastructure that the American people want and need without any tax increases,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.).

Young said he would take the CBO score with a grain of salt because “the Congressional Budget Office has long been hamstrung by rules that make them always wrong.”

 “There’s real-world scorekeeping … like when you claw back unused COVID [relief] money,” he added.

Moran and some fellow Republicans are also expressing concerns over provisions in the bill related to the expansion of broadband internet access in rural and other underserved areas.

Moran said he’s worried that the money for broadband isn’t narrowly focused on rural areas with poor internet service that he said need the most help.

Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, is working with Moran and a few other GOP colleagues to modify some of the broadband provisions.

Thune, another member of the Commerce panel, said the regulation of expanded broadband services continues to be a sticking point with some Republicans.

“They made some improvements in the broadband title but I’ve got four or five broadband amendments that I’ll file,” he said. “They … deal with who spends the money, how it gets spent.”

The Senate on Monday evening adopted an amendment sponsored by Thune, Moran and Sens. John Tester (D-Mont.) and Angus King (I-Maine) that would establish a special working group to address the workforce needs of the telecommunications industry.

In a promising development for proponents of the bipartisan deal, several key Republican senators praised the legislation Monday as a good start.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who served as the lead Republican negotiator on infrastructure negotiations with the White House earlier this year, signaled she is likely to support final passage of the legislation.

“This is a product the American people can be proud of and one that will benefit them and the next generation,” she said of the 2,700-page bill.

Capito, who is also the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over roads, bridges and other hard infrastructure priorities, noted the bipartisan deal included many elements of the highway reauthorization legislation that passed out of her committee unanimously.

Capito was one of the 17 Republicans who voted last week to begin debate on the infrastructure bill.

More words of encouragement came from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who praised the draft text Monday morning as “a good and important jumping-off point for what needs to be a robust and bipartisan process here on the floor.”

McConnell also warned Schumer not to jam Republican senators by rushing to a final vote on the bill.

“Our full consideration of this bill must not be choked off by any artificial timetable that our Democratic colleagues may have penciled out for political purposes,” he said.

Schumer is hoping to wrap up work on the bill as soon as week’s end but it appears more likely the debate will stretch into the second week of August.

Another complication is that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who announced tentative support for the legislation early Monday, later revealed that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and would quarantine for the next 10 days.

That means Graham would not be available to vote until the middle of next week.

Graham told reporters he’s “inclined to be” a yes going forward, adding of the deal: “I hope it stays together.”