U.S. Senate Democrats pass sweeping $3.5T US spending plan

The U.S. Senate approved a $3.5-trillion US spending blueprint for President Joe Biden's top priorities early on Wednesday morning in a 50-49 vote along party lines after lawmakers sparred over the need for huge spending to fight climate change and poverty.

Budget and infrastructure bills have been top priorities for U.S. President Joe Biden

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders walks through the Capitol with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer as they depart a meeting on the Democratic budget resolution in Washington on Aug. 9. The budget resolution passed the Senate early Wednesday. (Gabrielle Crockett/Reuters)

The U.S. Senate approved a $3.5-trillion US spending blueprint for President Joe Biden's top priorities early on Wednesday morning in a 50-49 vote along party lines after lawmakers sparred over the need for huge spending to fight climate change and poverty.

The vote marks the start of weeks of debate within Biden's Democratic Party about priorities including universal preschool, affordable housing and climate-friendly technologies.

With narrow majorities in both chambers of Congress, Democrats will need to craft a package that will win the support of both progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who want robust action on climate change, and moderates including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who has expressed concern at the size of the bill.

The vote followed about 14½ hours of debate that started right after the Senate on Tuesday passed a $1-trillion US infrastructure bill in a bipartisan 69-30 vote, proposing to make the nation's biggest investment in decades in roads, bridges, airports and waterways.

"It's been quite a night. We still have a ways to go, but we've taken a giant step forward to transforming America," Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters after the budget resolution passed. "This is the most significant piece of legislation that's been considered in decades."

The bills have been a top priority for Biden, who has sought to enact sweeping changes during a time when Democrats hold slim majorities in both congressional chambers and where they fear loss of legislative control in the looming 2022 elections.

The Democrats plan to push the package through over the next few months, using a process called "budget reconciliation, " which allows them to pass legislation with a simple majority vote. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat, said the House would return from its summer break early on Aug. 23 to consider the budget resolution.

Republicans have railed against the $3.5-trillion US spending plan. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted for the infrastructure bill, called the larger proposal "radical."

Debt ceiling looms

Dozens of Republican senators also signed a pledge not to vote to raise the nation's borrowing capability when it is exhausted in the autumn to try to curtail Democrats' spending plans.

"They [Democrats] shouldn't be expecting Republicans to raise the debt ceiling to accommodate their deficit spending," Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican who circulated the pledge, told the Wall Street Journal.

Failure to increase or suspend the statutory debt limit — now at $28.5 trillion US — could trigger a federal government shutdown or a debt default.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen this week urged Congress to raise the debt limit in a bipartisan vote. On Tuesday, Yellen also endorsed moving forward with the larger spending package, saying the infrastructure plan should have a sequel.

Uncertain future

On Tuesday, Biden lauded the 19 Republicans who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure measure. "Here on this bill, we've proven that we can still come together to do big things — important things — for the American people," he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said her chamber will not vote on the infrastructure bill or the larger spending package until both are delivered, which will require the Democratic leadership to hold its narrow majorities in Congress together to get the legislation to Biden's desk.

Leading House progressive Democrats said on Tuesday that most progressives would not vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate also passes a "robust" second spending measure. That was in contrast to more moderate House Democrats, who want a quick vote on the infrastructure bill.

Polls show the drive to upgrade America's infrastructure, hammered out over months by senators from both parties, is broadly popular with the public. The bill includes $550 billion US in new spending, as well as $450 billion US in previously approved infrastructure investment.

Democrats will begin crafting the reconciliation package for a vote on passage after they return from their summer break in September.