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Senate gears up to get massive infrastructure bill off ground

Democrats racing to vote on the massive Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, unveiled only the night before, strode Monday into some quicksand from Republicans less worried about the timeline.

"Senators expect and deserve opportunities to have a say and have their own state’s imprints on this major bill," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said from the floor today. "Just as infrastructure is not a luxury, the same goes for the Senate having a robust democratic process on legislation of this magnitude. Full consideration shouldn’t be choked off by artificial timetables that our Democratic colleagues may have penciled out for political purposes.”

The Senate finally unveiled the 2,702-page bill late Sunday after legislating in a rare weekend session over the finer points of sourcing huge pools of funding for the nation’s roads, bridges, waterways, its aging power grid and more. Typically, the August recess stretches right up to Labor Day in the first week of September. The House of Representatives is already on recess, and the Senate is expected to follow next week.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was eager to get the first hurdle cleared late Monday night, saying the longer it would take to finish the bill, the longer lawmakers would be on Capitol Hill this week.

But as promised, the first tranche of what is expected to be a battery of forthcoming amendments were delivered to the floor.

The first amendment, approved 90-7, was sponsored by California Senator Alex Padilla and Kansas Senator Jerry Moran, who are a Democrat and Republican, respectively.

The amendment proposes to expand funding authority for renovations of facilities under the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

Currently, American Indian or Native American tribes that fall under health care services provided by a group known as the Urban Indian Organization are not allotted full authority to tap funding to improve their facilities. This problem has been exacerbated, the senators argue, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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According to the National Council on Urban Indian Health, while the entire Indian Health Service system in America was forced — at least on paper — to bring its services up to the challenge of Covid-19, including arranging for critical telehealth services, Urban Indian Organizations were not empowered to do the same because of a section under existing budgetary rules that only allow for “minor” renovations or improvements to UIH facilities.

Padilla-Moran’s amendment would both strike “minor” from the text, and would remove language from the Indian Health Care Act mandating these groups first meet criteria set by The Joint Commission, the nation’s largest nonprofit accrediting body for health care.

The amendment enjoyed wide bipartisan support and comes at a time when, according to Padilla, 86% of Urban Indian Organizations need to make major upgrades to their infectious disease wards, ventilation systems and electronic records systems.

Another amendment approved Monday night, 95-1 was introduced by Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota and Senator Jon Tester of Montana, a Democrat.

The lawmakers' amendment, they argue, would strengthen workforce protections for laborers in the telecommunications industry. It proposes setting up an interagency work group within 60 days of the bill’s passage that would identify how to better facilitate workers who are pioneering the deployment of 5G wireless and broadband.

For example, safety standards for tower climbers would be improved and it would also assess "federal incentives" or rewards for colleges, universities and private businesses.

Sitting on the interagency task force, according to the amendment, would be a representative appointed by the secretary of Education, a representative from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and officials from entities tapped by the secretary of Labor.

A representative from an Indian tribe or tribal organization as well as a “representative of a rural telecommunications carrier” and a “representative of a telecommunications contractor firm” would also be appointed.

The Thune-Tester amendment in many ways is akin to similar provisions already found in the infrastructure bill including a mandated study on how to “green” school buses and improve their safety. Roughly $5 billion is earmarked to physically upgrade or convert school buses to renewable energy models.

Leading floor debate in the days ahead for Democrats is Delaware Senator Tom Carper, who has close ties to President Joe Biden. Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito will lead the debate for the GOP.

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Contentions over the massive infrastructure bill are mostly focused on how it will be paid for.

There is $205 billion in pandemic relief funding that has yet to be tapped, and opening that spigot will require plenty of from Democrats and Republicans considering that $550 billion in new spending has been allotted in the infrastructure bill just as the nation’s debt ceiling has expired.

The end of a two-year deadline to raise or limit the national debt arrived Sunday, prompting the Treasury Department on Monday to start taking emergency measures to conserve cash on hand. This will avoid the U.S. exceeding the 2019 debt cap of roughly $22 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the new cap is ballooning closer to $28 trillion.

The U.S. has never defaulted on its obligations but legislators in Congress are at a veritable impasse for now as Republican leadership in the House and Senate challenge any raise of the limit without drastic spending reductions.

Democrats wish to manage the nation’s coffers through a controversial budget-reconciliation measure. To advance their policy agenda, Democrats need a simple majority in each congressional chamber. This is a slightly easier feat in the House but verges on insurmountable in the Senate where all 50 Democrats must unify for passage.

Democrat Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are two lawmakers who have expressed hesitation on reconciliation.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, urged Congress not to couple the increased debt ceiling with more spending increases like has been done in the past.

“Instead, Congress should look to historical precedent when debt limit increases were paired with reforms to either directly bring down deficits or encourage a process for improving our fiscal situation," she said in a statement Monday. "With the national debt already larger than the economy and headed towards a new record, now is the time to think about how we change that going forward so we don’t saddle our children with our bills.”

The $550 billion in new spending will parse out $110 billion just for road and bridge upgrades. Another $66 billion is marked to improve national railways, and the power grid will see a $73 billion infusion. Not just for improvements, the legislation is also aimed at moving the U.S. off of fossil fuels and toward more renewable energy.

This could be a boon for many states but especially those where harsh weather has exposed the fragility of the national power grid and its inefficiency for more than a year.

Wildfire and extreme heat have prompted California, for example, to throttle power during fires or commence rolling blackouts when the system is overtaxed. Late last month, investigators blamed faulty power equipment used by California’s Pacific Gas and Electric Company for what was an 11,000-acre wildfire in Plumas and Butte counties.

PG&E declared bankruptcy over a year ago and has spent tens of billions to settle with insurers for its alleged role in sparking fires in 2015, 2017 and 2018, the last of which was California’s deadliest fire on record.

Wastewater infrastructure is set to receive $55 billion in the latest iteration of the bill with many of those dollars flagged to improve groundwater storage, critical maintenance and lead-pipe removal. Advancing drought contingency plans, as well as desalination and watershed health initiatives, are also outlined.

Another $50 billion is set aside just to strengthen the nation’s water infrastructure and make the U.S. more resilient to the effects of climate change. For pollution-remediation projects like reclaiming orphaned or abandoned oil and gas wells, there is $21 billion. Last year, an investigative report by Reuters concluded there are roughly 3.2 million such wells. Research published in December for the journal Environment, Science and Technology estimates the number of wells is now closer to 4 million.

Unattended wells pose a danger to groundwater since they can leak toxic chemicals like benzene or arsenic. Abandoned wells also hemorrhage methane emissions.

“We find that annual methane emissions from abandoned wells are underestimated by 150% in Canada and by 20% in the U.S.,” the paper states. “Even with the inclusion of two to three times more measurement data than used in current inventory estimates, we find that abandoned wells remain the most uncertain methane source in the U.S. and become the most uncertain source in Canada.”

The budget also features a $40 billion infusion into public transit and $15 billion to flesh out the nation’s electric vehicle fleet and overall capacity. It is expected lawmakers will amend this section of the bill heavily as state agencies would be responsible under the bill’s terms for building out electric-vehicle-charging stations at rest stops and more.

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More fights are expected over the $17 billion highlighted just for waterway ports and the $25 billion flagged for airports.

Another $65 billion would enhance the nation’s broadband internet capacity. Millions of dollars would become available in grants for states in an initiative known as the Affordable Connectivity Program meant to help low-income Americans get online and fast.  

If the legislation can pass in the Senate, it would go the House next and that is shaping up to be an even tougher fight with Democratic lawmakers already at sharp odds with Republicans and specifically, progressive members of their own party.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has indicated she will not pass the Senate’s infrastructure bill, let alone consider it seriously without a separate $3.5 trillion infrastructure measure advanced in the House. That measure includes what has become known as “human infrastructure,” on Capitol Hill, buoying child and elder care, public health and education programs and much more.

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Senate Democrats

The Senate voted to formally begin debate on a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure plan, a process that could take several days, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, July 30, 2021.

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