WASHINGTON — The Senate took a major step on Wednesday toward enacting a vast expansion of the nation’s social safety net, approving a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint along party lines that would allow Democrats to tackle climate change and fund health care, child care, family leave and public education expansion.
Much of that spending would be paid for with higher taxes on wealthy people and corporations.
After the Senate gave bipartisan approval to a $1 trillion infrastructure package on Tuesday, the budget vote came over unanimous Republican opposition. If House Democrats follow suit later this month, congressional Democrats this fall hope to draft an expansive package that will carry the remainder of President Biden’s $4 trillion economic agenda. The Senate adopted the measure 50 to 49, minutes before 4 a.m.
The blueprint sets in motion a perilous legislative process aimed at creating the largest expansion of the federal safety net in nearly six decades. The House will return early from its scheduled summer recess the week of Aug. 23 to take up the budget, so committees in both chambers can begin work fleshing out the party’s vision for what would be the greatest change to social welfare since the 1960s’ Great Society.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said on Wednesday that he hoped to have the legislation completed by the week of Sept. 15. But no one was declaring victory.
“This was one of the most significant legislative days we’ve had in a long time here in the United States Senate, but we still have a long road to travel,” Mr. Schumer said at a news conference. “We’ve labored for months and months to reach this point, and we have no illusions — maybe the hardest work is yet to come.”
Democratic unity this week could belie difficulties ahead. Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the Senate’s most vocal moderate Democrats, said they voted for the budget blueprint to keep to process moving, but they may not support the expansive legislation that the budget vote protects from a Republican filibuster.
Mr. Manchin released a statement on Wednesday that raised “serious concerns about the grave consequences facing West Virginians and every American family if Congress decides to spend another $3.5 trillion.”
At the White House, Mr. Biden defended the social spending package against criticism that it would fuel inflation.
“If your primary concern right now is the cost of living, you should support this plan, not oppose it,” he said. “A vote against this plan is a vote against lowering the cost of health care, housing, child care, elder care and prescription drugs for American families.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has just a three-vote margin in the House, and a half dozen moderates are considering whether to oppose the blueprint unless they get a scheduled vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill — to claim a quick victory and a White House bill-signing ceremony.
Understand the Infrastructure Bill
- One trillion dollar package passed. The Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package on Aug. 10, capping weeks of intense negotiations and debate over the largest federal investment in the nation’s aging public works system in more than a decade.
- The final vote. The final tally in the Senate was 69 in favor to 30 against. The legislation, which still must pass the House, would touch nearly every facet of the American economy and fortify the nation’s response to the warming of the planet.
- Main areas of spending. Overall, the bipartisan plan focuses spending on transportation, utilities and pollution cleanup.
- Transportation. About $110 billion would go to roads, bridges and other transportation projects; $25 billion for airports; and $66 billion for railways, giving Amtrak the most funding it has received since it was founded in 1971.
- Utilities. Senators have also included $65 billion meant to connect hard-to-reach rural communities to high-speed internet and help sign up low-income city dwellers who cannot afford it, and $8 billion for Western water infrastructure.
- Pollution cleanup: Roughly $21 billion would go to cleaning up abandoned wells and mines, and Superfund sites.
“When you’ve got a bill that will create two million jobs a year, with the support of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the Chamber of Commerce, all coming together with Democrats and Republicans and, by the way, the president, why would we not bring this to a vote and get it done immediately?” asked Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey. “Of course we will be pushing hard.”
Ms. Pelosi told House Democrats on Wednesday in a private call that she would not take up the bill before the Senate passed the second, larger package.
“I am not freelancing — this is the consensus,” Ms. Pelosi told Democrats, according to two people familiar with the discussion, who disclosed the comments on the condition of anonymity. “The votes in the House and Senate depend on us having both bills.”
That stance reflects the views of House liberals, who fear that if the infrastructure bill is signed into law, moderate Democrats will declare victory and withdraw support for the liberals’ priority bill.
With two significant bills in play, the fight over timing is growing fierce — and public.
“Now that the Senate approved the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the House must pass it ASAP,” Representative Stephanie Murphy, Democrat of Florida and a leader of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, wrote on Twitter. “While I support passing a targeted reconciliation bill to help FL families, we shouldn’t hold infrastructure hostage to it.”
Representative Jared Huffman, Democrat of California, quickly responded, “Respectfully, no.”
In the Senate, the budget blueprint’s passage came after a marathon session. Republicans, powerless to stop the measure in a Senate that Democrats control with Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote, pelted Democrats with politically freighted amendments. The votes dragged on for more than 14 hours before Democrats muscled through the measure, breaking into scattered applause.
Aug. 11, 2021, 9:06 p.m. ET
“This legislation will not only provide enormous support to the kids of this country, to the parents of this country, to the elderly people of this country,” said Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the independent in charge of the Budget Committee. “But it will also, I hope, restore the belief that in America we can have a government that works for all, not just the few.”
Senate Republicans denounced the blueprint as a launchpad for an unparalleled wave of spending that could ruin the country’s finances and its economy. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader, picked up the mantle after passage, warning of “a socialist spending binge that will crush families, dismantle our economy and reshape our country in the worst possible way.”
The budget resolution will ultimately allow Democrats to use the fast-track budget reconciliation process to shield the legislation from a Republican filibuster. It will pave the way to expand Medicare to include dental, health and vision benefits, and possibly to lower the program’s eligibility age from 65; fund a host of climate change programs; provide free prekindergarten and community college; create a paid family and medical leave program; and levy higher taxes on wealthy businesses and corporations.
Senate Republicans sought to exploit Democratic divisions through the so-called vote-a-rama, where an unlimited number of amendments could be offered by both parties. It was the third vote-a-rama this year, after Democrats prevailed in two identical exercises to push their $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package through Congress.
The marathon of nearly four dozen votes also gave Republicans a platform to hammer Democrats for trying to advance a package of this magnitude without their input, as well as distinguish the process from the public works plan many of them had supported.
“You’re putting in motion, I think, the demise of America as we know it,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Budget Committee. “You’re putting in motion a government that nobody’s grandchild can ever afford to pay.”
The proposed changes, many of which were shot down along party lines, were nonbinding and intended more to burnish a political case against Democratic senators facing re-election in 2022 than to become law. Some Republicans said the brunt of their proposals would wait until the subsequent legislation was finished, when changes could actually be adopted.
The hourslong stretch began with a vote that would prohibit funding or regulations to establish the Green New Deal, with Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, declaring that under any such provision “millions and millions of Americans will suffer.”
“I have no problem voting for this amendment, because it has nothing to do with the Green New Deal,” Mr. Sanders shot back. The amendment passed unanimously.
Democrats worked to remain in lock step to ward off many of the Republican proposals, including a provision from Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, that would prevent changes to the cap on how much taxpayers can deduct in state and local taxes. Democrats from high-tax states, particularly New York, New Jersey and California, have made raising or repealing the cap a priority, and a partial repeal is under discussion to be included in the final legislation.
But a few amendments signaled potential fights to come. Three Democrats — Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona, Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema — supported a provision calling for electric vehicle tax credits to be limited to lower- and middle-income consumers. Mr. Manchin joined Republicans in backing the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortion and which Democrats are aiming to remove from annual spending bills.
Mr. Manchin also voted with the Republicans to adopt an amendment from Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, to try to block the teaching of so-called critical race theory in public schools.
Democrats supported some amendments as a way to defang Republican attempts to weaponize the process, including a measure by Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, to penalize local governments that reduced funding for the police, reflecting a conservative push to attack Democrats over calls to defund or abolish police departments.
“I am so excited — this is perhaps the highlight of this long and painful and torturous night,” an exuberant Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, proclaimed in response, urging his colleagues to “not walk, but sashay down there” to vote for the amendment. “I’m sure I will see no political ads attacking anybody here over defunding the police.”
Luke Broadwater, Jonathan Weisman and Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.