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Senate Works on Infrastructure ‘the Old-Fashioned Way’: Painfully Slow

5 min read

WASHINGTON — As senators spent the first Sunday of what was supposed to be their summer break casting evening votes on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill whose passage now seems all but assured, it was hard not to notice the frustration setting in.

An unfamiliar activity was afoot in the usually paralyzed Senate: A bipartisan bill had actually made it to the floor, and a freewheeling debate on it was underway. But as the process plodded into its second week, the glacial pace of legislating was on vivid display.

It was taking forever.

A single senator, Bill Hagerty, Republican of Tennessee, was refusing to agree to speed the bill through, requiring the Senate to burn through at least 30 hours of debate even though passage was widely expected. (Mr. Hagerty, who is opposed to the bill, was prolonging the process largely to register a complaint about how it is paid for.)

“I’m not holding this up,” Mr. Hagerty insisted to reporters on Saturday.

“Yes, he is,” interjected Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware.

Others were haggling on the sidelines over the final details of the 2,702-page measure, including the fine print of cryptocurrency regulations and the reliability of alcohol-detection systems devices to curb drunken driving.

“I think many of us are frustrated that we have been sitting around together for quite some time without moving forward,” said Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, reminding her colleagues that the Senate is a body that frequently requires unanimity among all 100.

In some ways, this is how it was always meant to be in the Senate, as decreed by the chamber’s rules and its procedural bible. There are hours and hours of speeches, endless bargaining to steer around procedural hurdles, and lots of votes — often at unpredictable and inconvenient times. There is a reason the institution is known as the “cooling saucer” of legislative debate: The tea sits around for a long time.

But for lawmakers who have become accustomed to a gridlocked institution, where party-line votes have become the norm and bipartisan deal-making the exception, it all felt a bit irritating.

“I’m on my third year here and I still don’t understand the way the Senate can not do things, as opposed to do them,” said Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, as he lamented the hours squandered and the work bleeding over into the scheduled monthlong recess.

Leaving the Senate floor on Sunday, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, told reporters: “We’re doing it the old-fashioned way.”

The bipartisan package was in part born of a desire in both parties to show that the old-fashioned way in the Senate can, in fact, work. The 10 Republicans and Democrats who spearheaded the deal wanted to offer a counterpoint to progressives who have insisted that the only way to accomplish big, important policy goals in the current political environment is to scrap the filibuster rule. That would mean getting rid of the need to muster 60 votes to take up most major legislation, and allowing bills to be pushed through with brute force, on a simple majority vote.

As the infrastructure bill inches toward passage, those liberals have made their discontent with it plain. And Democratic leaders do not intend to stick with the old-fashioned way for very long: As soon as the sprawling measure passes, they plan to turn to partisan votes to try to pass their $3.5 trillion budget plan and voting rights legislation.

“Lots of people have lots of needs and views in our caucus, lots of needs in the country, some can be done bipartisan, some can’t,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said in a brief interview on Sunday, after warning his colleagues that they could finish the bill “the easy way, or the hard way.” “And if you told the caucus there would only be bipartisan or never be bipartisan, you’d probably get nothing done.”

It’s the second time this year Mr. Schumer has kept the Senate in a marathon floor amendment process to get a big, bipartisan piece of legislation accomplished. The first was legislation authorizing nearly a quarter-trillion dollars over the next five years into scientific research and development to bolster competitiveness against China.

His staff has proudly kept a running tally of amendments voted on during this Congress, which they say is now nearly triple the amount allowed under the final year that Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, led the chamber. Twenty-two amendments have so far been considered for the bipartisan bill.

The marathon process has given Democratic senators up for election in 2022 — including Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Mark Kelly of Arizona, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada — a chance to burnish their bipartisan credentials in swing states by introducing amendments with Republican co-sponsors.

But it also has given Democrats eager to persuade their moderate colleagues to embrace more bare-knuckled tactics evidence for what they argue are the limits of bipartisanship.

Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, said his party had opened up the process far beyond what Republicans had allowed when they controlled the chamber — only to be repaid by obstructionism causing successive days of late nights and teeth grinding.

“There’s a question now why we’re waiting — doing nothing, day after day after day,” Mr. Durbin said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “There are forces still trying to stop this bipartisan agreement in the United States Senate.”

Dysfunction in the Senate has “ratcheted up over time,” said Steven S. Smith, political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, as politicians in the minority, regardless of party, have chosen to routinely block or slow down matters that used pass without controversy.

“It’s very easy to take for granted how the regular business of the Senate has been transformed in the last dozen or 15 years,” Mr. Smith said in an interview. “The Senate is very different than we saw a generation ago. We’ve got far more than a decade of experience with routine minority obstructionism — and there’s no end in sight.”

Marathons are, for the average person, generally exhausting and painful, and this one has been no different, particularly for the staff responsible for keeping the Senate floor running: janitors, Capitol Police officers and cafeteria staff.

Lawmakers passed the time on the floor pleading with their colleagues to drop their objections, or delivering speeches to combat what they called “misinformation” about the bill, perhaps targeting the C-SPAN viewer more than their colleagues.

But there were moments of levity amid the tedium.

Lawmakers broke into spontaneous applause after a highway proposal from an odd pairing — the staunchly conservative Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas and Mr. Warnock, a committed liberal — got unanimous support.

Senator Cynthia Lummis, Republican of Wyoming, sent a cookie cake to Ms. Sinema — “from one tough cookie to another” — amid a fierce lobbying campaign over their dueling cryptocurrency proposals.

And Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana and one of the negotiators of the bill, ultimately predicted a final vote on the legislation on Tuesday.

“It could go quicker,” Mr. Cassidy said on CNN Sunday, “but it’s going.”

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