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Politics

Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Makes It To Senate Floor

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A rare thing has happened in the U.S. Senate, rare at least for this moment in our nation's politics. A bipartisan group of senators working with the White House has introduced a major bill to the floor. By major, we are talking about more than 550 billion in new federal funding, about 1 trillion in total spending.

This is for infrastructure. This is the infrastructure bill - roads, trains, broadband, electricity. Now, these are mostly popular investments across the aisle and across the country. And it has still taken more than a month to negotiate the details and a special session this weekend. Now the full Senate will debate and possibly amend this infrastructure package. Among those debating will be South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds, a Republican. He was part of that bipartisan team drafting the legislation, and he's on the line now from his office on Capitol Hill.

Senator Rounds, welcome.

MIKE ROUNDS: Thank you very much. And, I might add, we are still drafting that legislation.

KELLY: Yes.

ROUNDS: And there will be lots of amendments as well.

KELLY: You ain't done yet.

ROUNDS: No.

KELLY: Well, tell me - just start with what are you excited about in this legislation.

ROUNDS: Well, first of all, it shows that we actually can get together when we all agree that there's a need. And in this particular case, there were 20-some of us in the room at a time, Republican and Democrat. And sometimes you actually had a difficult time telling Democrats from Republicans and vice versa, mainly because roads, bridges, water projects, rail projects, infrastructure meaning broadband - in that one, we talk about internet connectivity and so forth - those are items that Republicans and Democrats are agreeing on. It's now a matter of how do you pay for them, what length of time do you give and who's going to actually spend the money and who's going to receive the benefits.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, I'll stay with that paying for them question. Your colleague Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, took to the floor last night. He was raising questions about how to pay for this legislation - sounds like you share those questions.

ROUNDS: Oh, no question about it. And I will just tell you that as of right now, there's still more questions out there. But in broad overall terms, you're talking about $550 billion in spending over a five-year period of time. That would bring in what we think is new economic development opportunities. But when you do that, you've got to have a way to pay for the - for your ongoing expenses. And we don't want to raise taxes. And so in this particular case, we did find literally better than half of the money coming from dollars that had already been appropriated but were not needed during last year's pandemic relief programs.

KELLY: This is some of the COVID spending that had yet to be disbursed, and you're trying to claw it back.

ROUNDS: Right. And in some cases, it was not even disbursed yet. It had been appropriated but not necessarily spent or committed by local units of government or by the federal government. There are some cases where there were dollars that were put out and put out incorrectly and fraudulently paid benefits under, you know, enhanced federal UI benefits, just as an example. But there were a number of - now, it's not going to be popular with everybody because some people were looking at some of the fees and so forth that will continue on that were due to perhaps be dropped. So it's not going to be real popular with everybody. But I think the overall impact is going to be such that the vast majority of American people will say, it's about time you did do something. We hire you to make the hard decisions.

KELLY: As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

ROUNDS: Yes.

KELLY: There's a lot of detail in here. This is a 2,700-page bill. On a scale of one to 10, how do you rate its chances for passing the Senate?

ROUNDS: I think it will pass unless there are games being played. Right now there are not games being played. Republicans and Democrats continue to work side by side. And whenever we run into a jam, we get together, we sit down, and we say, how do we make this work? And so far, over a period of months, we've been able to claw our way through it. Broadband is a really good example. There were some really sticky issues in broadband. And...

KELLY: Yeah.

ROUNDS: We've gone back and forth and back and forth just trying to make sure that the pay-fors that are in it will actually work and not cause problems.

KELLY: Now, I want to ask - another Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, has just revealed that he has tested positive for COVID. This is a breakthrough case. He says he's fully vaccinated. I wonder, did your phone light up? Are people - others in the Senate worried that this might be making the rounds?

ROUNDS: No, we actually just found out. I can just tell you that the one thing we need to send a message to the people is they need to get those vaccines. They are safe vaccines. Please get the vaccines. We know that there's misinformation out there about the vaccines. But look; you got a heck of a lot better chance of surviving and keeping your loved ones safe if you get the vaccines and you get them for your loved ones as well. I'm vaccinated. My wife is vaccinated. Our family is vaccinated. And our kids are - our grandkids are being vaccinated as soon as they are of appropriate age. Please. This needs to be something that we accept, and we do it to protect our loved ones and ourselves.

KELLY: I do need to ask about the implication for politics and for votes this week on infrastructure because here's the rub, as you know, sir - is Democrats insist the Senate will vote on both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion budget proposal before you all leave Washington for your August recess. I know Republicans have indicated precisely zero enthusiasm for this. It would need to pass with just Democratic votes. Is that going to happen? Is it going to pass?

ROUNDS: We don't know. It'll depend on whether or not they can get all of their Democrats in line and whether or not they modify the original crazy $3.5 trillion proposal. And look. This is...

KELLY: Crazy 'cause it's too much money. Is that what they think, too?

ROUNDS: It's way too much money. It's way too much money to be spending right now. Look; we've already seen inflationary trends. And when you kind of spend this kind of money and you do it in such a fashion over a short period of time, you just beg for more inflation to come about.

KELLY: Although this is the bit that would address the so-called human infrastructure things, things like child care, health care, education - things that matter to Republicans, to your constituents as much as to anybody else.

ROUNDS: Clearly, in a lot of cases, that should also be at the state level, and individuals at that level should also have a say in this. Simply to say we're going to do it and we don't have a plan necessarily to pay for it that wouldn't impact the economy is going to be tough to get past. I think Democrats are going have a tough time keeping their own people in line.

KELLY: Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota, thank you for your time. We'll hope to check in with you again as you all figure out a path forward here.

ROUNDS: Thanks.

KELLY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOLF ALICE SONG, "TURN TO DUST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.