Schoolhouse Rock didn’t prepare us for this. There is no cute song to simplify the long and complicated slog to passage for the bill formerly known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, or BIF, even after the Senate managed to clear two daunting procedural hurdles last week.
Those votes are merely the beginning of the arduous process that could lead to the White House’s latest and greatest priority finally becoming a law. Last week, the Senate invoked cloture on a motion to proceed—congressional argot that simply meant that it needed to pass a 60-vote threshold just to limit debate on a vote to decide whether to take up the bill. Then it approved the motion to proceed, which only required a simple majority. But those were just the first fussy steps in a lengthy road—and there are a few speed bumps ahead. Here’s the map, if you want to follow along at home.
It’s useful to recall how we got here. First off, the Senate had to, well—write the bill with some specific language. Technically, the bill under consideration began its life as a “shell.” It’s a House surface transportation bill, originally authored by Representative Peter DeFazio, whose language would be stricken and replaced by the text of the BIF. (In an interview with The New Republic, DeFazio expressed some frustrations with the way the Senate was transforming his original vision.)
But that transformation began on Sunday, when what was once just a BIF became a BIB—a bipartisan infrastructure bill. After the text of the BIB was released on Sunday night, all 2,702 pages of it, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had to file a substitute amendment replacing the shell’s language with the Senate’s. (It may be worth mentioning here that the origination clause of the Constitution requires that all bills raising or appropriating money originate in the House. A substitute amendment sidesteps that provision, maintaining the House bill number but using the Senate’s language.)
Then came the amendment process, which requires agreement among all 100 senators. This can take a while. The Senate considered 22 amendments to the bill, the majority from Republicans. Democrats were of the mind to move quickly, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Monday that he wants a thorough amendment process not “choked off by an artificial timetable.” On Tuesday, he warned Schumer not to limit the amendment process. “My best advice to the majority leader would be that slow and steady wins the race,” McConnell said.
The Senate had a planned recess that was supposed to begin at the end of this week, but between the infrastructure votes and a funeral for former Senator Mike Enzi on Friday, which several senators are expected to attend, that break will not begin on time.
After a full day of haggling over amendments without any votes, Schumer opted to speed along the process and limit debate by filing cloture on both the substitute amendment and the underlying bill late on Thursday evening. Friday is considered an intervening day allowing cloture to “ripen,” like the world’s most boring fruit. (This also provides the time to allow senators to travel to Wyoming on Friday for Enzi’s funeral.)
“We have been trying to vote on amendments all day but have encountered numerous objections from the other side,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor shortly before midnight on Thursday. “However, we very much want to finish important bill, so we will reconvene Saturday at noon to vote on cloture, and then we will follow the regular order to finish the bill.”
As mentioned a few paragraphs ago, when you were younger and unburdened by these concerns, a cloture vote requires support from 60 senators. So it won’t be invoked unless a sufficient number of Republicans agree that enough amendments have been considered and it’s time to limit debate.
Rumors abounded on Thursday that the lengthy process may be sped up, thanks to the most effective accelerant of all: senators’ heartfelt desire to get out of Washington as soon as possible. The Senate could by unanimous consent waive all debate time, and the votes could be stacked, so that there would be only one vote for final passage of the bill. Again, this is far from a done deal, as all senators would have to sign off on accelerating the process—and many Republican senators may still want to consider more amendments.
Let’s say there isn’t an agreement to speed things along, and senators have to take the more difficult road to passing the BIB. If that’s the case, there would up to 30 hours of debate after Saturday’s cloture vote, followed by a vote on whether to adopt the substitute amendment. That vote would only require a simple majority.
(Author provides a pause here for the reader to pop some ibuprofen for that growing headache caused by having to think about the tortuous particulars of Senate procedure.)
Now it’s time for the Senate to hold yet another cloture vote, this time on the underlying bill. Let’s say that passes with 60-plus votes. The Senate may not use all of the allotted 30 hours of debate, but the whole process of passing this bill will likely age us psychologically by an immeasurable amount anyway. Then the Senate votes on the adoption of the underlying bill as an amendment, which—ta-da!—would constitute the final passage of the bill.
But the infrastructure train will not have fully left the station—the Senate must now take the first steps for passing a separate “reconciliation” bill. You see, Schumer has insisted on a two-track strategy to pass much of Biden’s economic agenda. The first track is this bipartisan infrastructure bill; the second is a massive bill that includes Democrats’ remaining priorities, such as health care, childcare, immigration, and additional provisions related to climate change.
But there is no way that second bill will get support from any Senate Republicans. So Democrats will use budget reconciliation, a complicated and arduous process that allows budget-related legislation to pass with a simple majority and dodge the filibuster.
Schumer has said that he hopes to pass a budget resolution before the Senate goes into recess, which would lay out the instructions for crafting the reconciliation bill. He initially suggested that vote could happen this week, but that timeline is somewhat optimistic. Before Senate Democrats can pass the resolution, there will be up to 50 hours of debate and what’s known as a “vote-a-rama,” which is a lot less fun than it sounds. Many vote-a-ramas include consideration of dozens of amendments, and can often result in overnight sessions.
The shudder-inducing prospect of a lengthy debate and an all-night vote-a-rama could be the big incentive for senators trying to speed along the votes on the bipartisan bill. They know that the process leading up to the vote on a budget resolution will likely be arduous and, well, they want to go home.
“I think there’s a lot of desire to truncate this process [on the bipartisan bill] and get to the ever-popular vote-a-rama,” GOP Senator John Cornyn told reporters on Thursday. “I think people are sort of seeing, you know, this is the ticket to getting out of here on a timely basis.”
Schumer seems determined to complete his goals, even if it means cutting into senators’ beloved August recess. “The Senate is going to stay here until we finish our work,” Schumer said on Tuesday. So if the Senate does remain in Washington to work on passing the budget resolution, that will occur sometime next week.
If the Senate manages to pass both in the coming days, it will be a victory for the Biden administration and for Schumer, whose insistence on passing two infrastructure bills had seemed overly optimistic as recently as last week. If the Senate fails to do so, well, at least we’ll have memories of this nearly inscrutable process to share with one another in the years to come. Maybe we can even write a song about it.